Rampage

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Film * Brad Peyton * Dwayne “The Rampage” Johnson * 2018

Synopsis

I don’t know what y’all do when you’re feeling a little bit down. I assume endlessly watch tepid episodes of Friends on Netflix considering how much they spent on that atrocious show and I cannot think of another reason people would subject themselves to it if they were feeling okay. As for myself, I appreciate and embrace the allure of really stupid nonsense to really numb the brain. Disaster movies starring The Rock are pretty much exactly suited to make me feel better. It’s like ninety minutes of shit blowing up for no reason and Dwayne Johnson doing stuff with his eyebrows is the equivalent of a couple tabs of Celexa (note, dumb movies are not an actual alternative to taking your meds). Rampage is no exception to this, nor did I really expect it to be. All the trailers suggested that it was basically San Andreas with CG monsters instead of an earthquake. That’s… pretty much exactly what this movie is. It’s great.

Rampage, if you weren’t aware, is actually a video game movie. It is based on one of my favorite arcade games from when I was a little kid. I loved that game because you played as the monster and the entire point of the game was to smash up buildings and move from town to town. Rampaging, as it were. I would always play as Lizzie, the Godzilla analogue, but your other options were George the fake King-Kong and Ralph the enormous wolf. The first few stages in the game are suburbs of Chicago, then you get to beat up Chicago! Pump enough quarters and you can tour the entire United States, knocking buildings over. It’s not a great game. But when you’re eight? Man, I just wanna knock down Portland! I’ve been there!

If you couldn’t tell from the above description, there really isn’t all that much to adapt. Three big monsters? Check. Big monsters beat up Chicago? Check. You did it! You’ve perfectly adapted Rampage for the big screen. The problem is, audiences expect stories and characters and bullshit like that, so the screenwriters had to put in some work to make any of this make sense. Still, the disaster movie template is pretty well established, and they managed to get Dwayne Johnson, so they found a way. Is it a good way? It’s better than The Core! It’s not as good as Deep Impact! This is largely because the disaster in this situation is courtesy of three very large CG monsters, which, mmm, doesn’t have quite the same gravitas as a planet-killing asteroid. Basically The Rock is an employee of the San Diego zoo. He is the science-man in charge of the gorillas. He likes them more than people, because of his dark past as a Special Forces anti-poaching, uh, guy. Anyway, one of his gorillas – George – is hit with a canister of DNA juice from space and he turns enormous and angry. As do a wolf and a crocodile. Rampaging ensues.

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I know the ape has personality and whatnot, but Lizzie is still the best.

Discussion

The time elapsed to actual rampaging in this movie is just about thirty minutes, in case you were wondering how much boring set-up there is. The villains are an evil brother-and-sister team whose company developed the aforementioned DNA juice in space. The introductory scene takes place in the super-secret evil satellite where they were doing the illegal research. One of the space rats got all huge and crazy and wrecked up the place. The one remaining survivor managed to rescue the DNA juice, but blew up in re-entry. That’s why the monsters happen. Then the baddies set off a beacon they’ve hidden in the giant antennae on top of the Sears Tower, which calls the monsters to Chicago so that they can, I dunno, harvest the juice? It’s not important. What is important is that the rampaging happens, and it is cool. Also, the villains remind me of Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant as the Mayflowers in Hudson Hawk. Oh, I love Hudson Hawk, by the way. You can judge me accordingly.

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I’m pretty well convinced that Rampage is going to look terrible in a few years when I see it on TBS.

Man, I have this whole section subtitled “discussion” and I have very little to discuss. Okay, well, one thing I enjoy about disaster movies is that there’s always an Important Ecological And/Or Moral Lesson to be taken away from the experience. I somehow haven’t written about it yet, but The Day After Tomorrow is a good example. In that absolute classic, there are these monster death-storms which super-blast the United States with mega-ice and snow-hurricanes. The point being that climate change is real and don’t be dumb. Here in Rampage, the progressive ecological lesson is that poaching is bad. Don’t, like, go to Africa and illegally hunt gorillas. Okay, movie, I won’t! Nor will I purchase or support whatever monstrous products people make out of dead gorillas. Seriously, what kind of nightmare person would hunt a gorilla to make ghoulish products out of their humanoid-ass corpses? Oh, wait, I figured it out.

Alrighty, things we’ve learned about Rampage:

  1. It’s a good smashy-smashy-kaboom movie if your brain enjoys that kind of thing.
  2. Dwayne Johnson is always a delight.
  3. George the gorilla flips people off a lot, so that’s, you know, hilarious.
  4. The movie invokes fond memories of bad arcade games and extremely stupid Bruce Willis movies.
  5. DNA juice = bad.
  6. I like that the movie makes you wait to see Lizzie, my old fave, and when she shows up she is suitably badass.
  7. Poaching. Not cool.

And that’s about it, I think. About my only disappointment with this thing is the missed opportunity with the ending credits. You’re telling me you couldn’t do an old school arcade theme as a call back to the game? Pretty weak, guys. Ah well, maybe next time. Rampage 2: Rampagier.

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Posted in Disaster, Film | Leave a comment

Norse Mythology

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Myths! * Neil Gaiman * Ragnarok and Whatnot * 2017

Synopsis

Books are an evergreen joy, and it barely matters when in life you read a good one. I read the Harry Potters in my mid-twenties and I clearly love them as much as I would have if they had been a part of my actual childhood. Of course I had my own set of influential books growing up, which I’m not sure I could improve upon given the miraculous option of sending newer books back in time to myself. I had The Lorax for whimsical lessons in ecology, I had Harriet the Spy for learning that being an introvert is not an excuse to be a little bitch, and I had Where the Red Fern Grows to fuck me up emotionally. RIP Old Dan and Little Ann, you beautiful hillbilly smell-hounds. I also had a whole mess of glorious non-fiction books and almanacs from which I could hoover up useless tidbits of information that have made me a formidable Trivial Pursuit player. And, of course, there were the collections of Greek mythology. The stories of Zeus and his dysfunctional family were fascinating. Especially since I had access to the cool versions with the murders and stuff. What I did not have, what I did not even know existed, was a similar book about the Norse myths. If I could send a book back in time to twelve-year-old me, Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology would be a strong contender.

I never had that experience, sadly, so instead I come to this book with a hodgepodge of cultural detritus in my mind instead of – and I use this term so very loosely – the canonical stories. I know, settle down, you can’t have a canon if there’s no reliable source, you know what I mean. What I have, up until pretty much now, is ephemera. I read the stories in this collection trying not to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe versions of Thor and Loki in my head. I mostly failed. Also this year, I played through God of War, which was all about this stuff. It was a great game, but of course the game takes a lot of liberties with the source material. That’s the great thing about mythology, though. Since there’s no hard and fast source, anyone can pretty much do whatever they want with it. The “characters,” or the gods and their freaky buddies, basically have one or two characteristics and are otherwise fair game. It makes sense that Marvel made Thor a superhero back in the day. Superheroes are basically our modern day myths, with the same broadly-drawn template characters in lieu of gods.

The reason I think this stuff would have clicked better for me as a kid is fairly simple: my imagination was better. Actually, let me rephrase. My imagination was wilder, less structured. Reading through Norse Mythology now, I’m having a pretty good time. It’s cool having a more grounded referent for these figures and myths which I’ve lacked until now. Back then, though, these jerky gods would have lived in my head. Loki would be compelling and terrifying by turns. I probably would have over-sympathized with the giants, sensitive little wiener kid that I was. Norse Mythology would have been one of those books I pored over, again and again, skipping around to my favorite bits. Probably revisiting the more grisly stories more than is healthy, but still, it would have just resonated more. That’s not to say that adult me didn’t appreciate this. It’s just that my awful, reified, adult brain files Norse Mythology under “reference” as opposed to “this is the raddest thing I’m going to live there in my mind.” That’s okay. Adulthood happens.

Discussion

In the beginning is the beginning, and in the end is the end, but in the end is also the new beginning. That the end is also the beginning is the very idea of apocalypse. Pretty much every social worldview, ancient or otherwise, operates on this kind of comic timeframe. Cycles and cycles, and the midpoint of each is a cataclysmic destruction of the old to make way for the new. The Norse were no different, they were just a little more flamboyant than some. Ragnarok, the end of the Norse mythology cycle, is framed as an epic battle between the gods and giants (yes they have proper names, but get the book and you can enjoy the glossary there) where just about everyone kills each other and in so doing destroy the Earth. Whoopsie! Of course there are survivors, and it these who will recreate the world and set forth a new cycle. This is a bit different than the Christian vision of apocalypse, in which the Earth is destroyed but the new revelation is that of eternal life in heaven, rockin’ with Jesus and the boys. The point is the same: the old crumbles and gives way to the new. The main difference is the flavor of the text, and the kind of sick cover you want on your metal album, Thor all ripped out and whipping his hammer around or like, Satan.

Make no mistake, Ragnarok is metal as fuck. First of all, you’ve got Loki, who according to the mythology is currently in an unpleasant place. He is, at this very moment, in some dark unknown place, strapped to a cold stone with the entrails of his dead son and unable to move as vicious poison continuously drips into his eyes. It’s no fun being Loki. However, when Ragnarok rolls around, he’ll get his. Endless winter will reign the land, sending the balance of the world into chaos. Loki will escape and round up a bunch of pissed off giants, and enact their revenge upon the Norse gods who, let’s be honest, suck every bit as much as their Greek counterparts. Odin and Thor and the rest get what they deserve. Of course, the price for their comeuppance is the destruction of the planet and the gruesome and painful death of humanity, but you know, that’s how it goes in the apocalypse.

Obviously there’s more going on in Norse Mythology than the end of all things. I just have a specific interest here at Apocalypedia. All the Norse gods are mercurial dicks, but that’s part of the fun. There’s no real rooting interest when everyone sucks, so you may as well sit back and enjoy their hijinks. I enjoyed Freya quite a bit, as the sad, powerful goddess who is extremely sick of being used as a bartering chip by her brothers. “If you do x, you can have Freya’s hand in marriage!” “Yo, how about you get my hand upside your head and you can go marry yourself.” Probably the only real disappointment is that there just isn’t enough of this stuff. That’s hardly Gaiman’s fault. As he points out in the introduction, very little Norse mythology actually survived. That’s what happens when this stuff was orally transmitted (a technical term that just sounds gross) and never written down until it was mostly too late. In fact, the only reason we have what we have is because these things were referenced in other writings considered worthy by the people doing the writing. Not unlike the heroic monk(s) who wrote Beowulf in the margins of their Church writings, we have only a handful of these myths because of a few guys in monasteries who weren’t total squares. Well that’s okay. Maybe after Ragnarok happens we’ll do it better on the next go-round.

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Pattern Recognition

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Novel * William Gibson * The Post-9/11 World is Weird, Huh? * 2003

Synopsis

William Gibson has an esoteric sense of style. Back in the day, when Neuromancer came out, it was a revelation. I wasn’t there. I mean I was a cool five-year-old and all, but not that cool. Still, it’s one of those landmark sci-fi novels you just know about if you’re into the genre. Everything about that novel is concentrated cool. It’s an entire world crafted out of style. Cyber-ninjas and monolithic A.I.’s and deck cowboys and whatnot. Imagine a world where cyberpunk was fresh and new, is what I’m saying here. And a big part of what made William Gibson’s first novel so distinct and important was the nature of the writing itself. Neuromancer takes for granted that you, the reader, are cool enough to vibe with the language being used. Now, since Gibson is a science fiction writer and his audience is the kind of person who would read science fiction in 1984, everyone involved is likely a huge dork in real life. But man, the slick style on display in Neuromancer made dorks feel rad as shit.

I’m not sure if that sense of stylish cool carries on in Gibson’s ensuing work. I can’t really say because I’ve only read one other novel of his (the world is a big place and there are a lot of books in it, I’m doing the best I can, dang it!). That one was totally fine, if a little lackluster in comparison to Neuromancer. Of course, the problem with having an absolute banger for a debut novel means you’re spending the rest of your career chasing that high, but I guess that’s a good problem to have. Anyway, both of the Gibson novels I’ve read up to now take place in the same world. Pattern Recognition is very different. It’s not a near-future, cyberpunk world dominated by global corporations and income inequality. Rather, the book takes place right around when it was written, which is to say in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The novel very much has the feeling of a thing written in response to how the world was changing around the turn of the millennium.

Here are things that we’ve established about Pattern Recognition:

  1. It is written in Gibson’s signature style. He has a way of writing breezy sentences out of unconventional pairings of words. It’s hard to explain. The opening sentence of the book refers to jet-lag as “ever-circling wolves of disrupted circadian rhythm.” So far, every Gibson novel is worth reading for his specific writing style alone. Although maybe that’s because I’m a writer and enjoy original approaches to the craft.
  2. It is decidedly not a cyberpunk novel. It’s not science fiction at all, actually. It takes place in 2002 or 2003, which is right around when the book was written/published. That does not make the book any less strange.
  3. That’s basically it, because I don’t actually know what this book is about. I followed the plot and the characters and while page to page I was enjoying myself, I still couldn’t tell what happened or why it was important. Pattern Recognition is told from the perspective of a woman named Cayce. She is not a cyber-ninja of any kind. Rather, she’s a “coolhunter,” which automatically makes her uncool. Sorry, them’s the rules. Her job is to help companies figure out what the hot new trends are so that they can leverage their brands. Cayce is very sensitive to branding, you see. She’s literally allergic to trademarks and designer labels. Yeah, it’s that kind of book. Oh, and she’s also obsessed with these random video clips that are getting uploaded to the Internet. Put a gun to my head, and I would say that Pattern Recognition is about Cayce attempting to track down the source of these clips. Please do not put a gun to my head.

Discussion

A brief sketch of the plot is not a compelling reason to read this book. A very menacing thing that happens to Cayce early on in the book is coming home to her apartment and finding a stuffed Michelin Man hanging on her doorknob. Yeah, the things that happen over the course of this book are not terribly compelling taken out of context. Cayce spends most of the novel jet-lagged and exhausted, which, in conjunction with Gibson’s style, makes everything seem dream-like and disconnected from a concrete reality. Even the once scene of visceral violence feels off somehow, like all the actions the characters take are one step behind reality. Cayce is buffeted around a strange, modern world, and her choices seem almost incidental to what actually happens. Over the course of Pattern Recognition, she finds herself in London, Japan, Russia, and even though Cayce intends to go to those places her agency is still questionable. She’s an oddly passive protagonist.

At its heart, Pattern Recognition is coming to terms with 9/11. Cayce lost her father in the attacks, although the way the situation is presented he was literally lost. Her father is one of the missing, and his death could never be confirmed. He had ties to the intelligence community, back in the Cold War, so his disappearance sits uneasy. As does, of course, 9/11 itself. This is a book which was written when the aftermath was unfolding, and nobody could quite figure out what the long-term consequences were going to be. Now, in 2018, that trajectory is a little more clear. Back then, however, everything was uncertain. Well, other than blundering into an endless war, of course. That was pretty obvious from the jump. One of the weird things about 9/11 that I’m not sure gets talked about much is something that Pattern Recognition seems to deal with pretty well, which is to say things didn’t actually change all that much.

Cayce, a New Yorker with a marketing job, is going on with her life. New York is going on with life. Obviously London and Tokyo are as well. 9/11 is present in this novel, specifically through Cayce’s father, but what’s conspicuous about Pattern Recognition is that the focus is less on terrorism or the response to the attacks and more on how corporations are evolving. Given that Neuromancer and cyberpunk in general are a scathing indictment of late-stage capitalism, with their global corporations and vast wealth inequality, this makes sense. Pattern Recognition, then, could be considered a launching point for how these multinationals learn how to navigate a new world of the Internet and instant communications. Cayce flits from country to country, and the only thing that really changes are the time zones and some light cultural flourishes. Wherever she goes, despite the “mirror-world” differences, Cayce is able to function and pursue her cool or whatever.

I’m still not sure how much I actually liked this book. As I said, moment-to-moment, I enjoyed the writing. That said, there are several levels of disconnect throughout that keep the reader at a distance. I never felt particularly connected to Cayce, mostly because she was always so removed from others and her own environment. As for the plot, it’s hard to take entirely seriously. This is due in some part because of where I’m sitting in 2018. The whole thing with the random video clips never really pays off. I mean, it literally does as Cayce makes a grip of cash from a Russian bazillionaire after she finds the author of the clips. The thing is, the clips were valuable because of how they were marketed. They were viral videos, which is old hat now. The only difference between the viral videos in the book and how they actually came to be a cultural imprint is that the real viral videos are dumb, lowest-common-denominator things. People hurting themselves, cats, Russian dash-cam videos. You know, the Internet. In Pattern Recognition, Gibson imagines the first viral videos as art-house pieces that very smart, cool people are into. Turns out, the world is a lot dumber than Gibson wants to admit.

Posted in Books, Corporations | Leave a comment

Hazards of Time Travel

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Novel * Joyce Carol Oates * Wisconsin Dystopia * 2018

Synopsis

Somehow, despite the fact that Joyce Carol Oates has written approximately 17,000 books, I’ve only ever read her short stories. Well, thanks to my new best friend the library, I was able to read her newest, Hazards of Time Travel. The premise of which is exactly my jam. That’s because the novel is about a near-future dystopian America. I like those. I suppose I shouldn’t, considering the way my country has been acting for the last couple of years, but I still think there’s value in considering how much worse things could be. Trump is a lot of things, but grossly incompetent is near the top of the list, which has inadvertently helped us out. His methods skew authoritarian, but he’s sloppy and bad at execution and lacks organization, which a true authoritarian regime needs to succeed. Lucky us. So instead of a methodical move toward destabilizing institutions and organizing physical repression, we get chaos. The future depicted in Hazards of Time Travel is not of our current world.

This novel reads like an alternate-history dystopia, which is intriguing because that’s not usually how this genre works. Most of the time, an author imagines a dystopia as a near-future consequence of current events unfolding in the worst possible way. The famous ones, like 1984 and Brave New World, are intended to be instructive. Something like It Can’t Happen Here is very plainly saying, “yes it can, idiot.” In Hazards of Time Travel, we’ve already avoided the future being depicted. The novel is clearly set in a time very close to our own. The protagonist, Adriane, is seventeen and her parents have distinct pre-9/11 memories. Despite this, the world is very different. In this world, the United States used the terrorist attacks to expand the role of Homeland Security to essentially envelop the government in partnership with a cabal of corporations and billionaires. The result is a society restricted in thought and speech. Anyone who questions how things work or how things used to be are quickly removed. Or, in the novel’s parlance, “Deleted.”

Adriane, like any good dystopian protagonist, asks dangerous questions. She doesn’t do this with any sort of malice or agenda, she’s just a naturally curious young woman and that’s the kind of attitude that can get you in trouble when the government actively murders dissenters. Adriane, all innocence, finds herself in the dangerous position of class valedictorian. Most people understand that calling attention to one’s intelligence is in itself dangerous, but Adriane is kind of a ding-dong that way and just blithely asks questions. Her school principal, ever a good citizen, calls Homeland Security, who promptly disappear Adriane. Luckily for her, Adriane’s youth and inexperience are taken into account, so instead of being immediately Deleted, she’s given another option. Instead of being erased from reality, she’s simply sent back in time to a bucolic Wisconsin college in 1958. If that seems like a weird move for a totalitarian state, well, it is.

There’s a lot of things about Hazards of Time Travel which don’t really fit together. As mentioned, there’s the disconnect of a dystopian state that we’ve already avoided, which is kind of neat but also serves to undermine the sense of relevance these kind of novels usually have. The beginning of the novel is also pretty clunky. I don’t mean the writing. Joyce Carol Oates is a master craftsman and the writing is crisp and clear. That said, conceptually, it takes a while for Hazards of Time Travel to get to the point. A lot of time is spent throwing out new Proper Nouns in lieu of world-building, and by the time we get to Wisconsin, it’s hard to care too much. Then, once Adriane arrives, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of thematic glue to hold the narrative together. I’m being a little vague, so as to not reveal story beats. As ever, spoilers after the break.

Discussion

One thing dystopian overlords like to do is force compliance through oppression. The idea is that there is more to be gained by forcibly converting people to support the totalitarian state than simply murdering them. I mean, they do that too, obviously, but quite a lot of time, energy, and resources are spent in forcing their worldview onto individuals. It’s not efficient, and I’m not sure there’s a real-world analogue for violent, authoritarian states spending a good deal of time forcing troublesome individuals to believe that 2+2=5, you know? The easiest way to quiet dissent is to kill or imprison, which is generally what happens. Orwell, king of dystopian exposition, gives his explanation as to why Winston should be made into a believer. Oates, who is far more efficient in her storytelling, doesn’t bother. It’s a problem, though, because without any real attempt at explanation, the mere existence of 1958 Wisconsin doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Adriane finds herself in an alien culture and is slowly being suffocated by loneliness and terror for her life and family. Hazards of Time Travel is at its best when depicting poor Adriane’s struggle to acclimate herself to her new reality. She spends most of her time hiding from human contact, trying to find air clear of cigarette smoke, and studying. The atmosphere of dystopian dread is juxtaposed with the more innocent environment of a small-town cow-college in the 50s. Before too long, that juxtaposition becomes conflation, and the college campus itself becomes claustrophobic and the small-mindedness of Adriane’s fellow students becomes apparent. Before too long, however, Adriane finds a fellow-sufferer, someone she’s convinced is also in exile alongside her. This man, with the unfortunate name of Wolfman, has been exiled in Wisconsin for far longer, and is actually a faculty member. Adriane immediately falls in “love,” which is more a mix of youthful infatuation and sheer desperation. After that everything gets sad.

Well, sad and confusing. Adriane is a mess, which you’d expect. She’s also the best part of this novel, because the rest of the narrative doesn’t really hold together. Towards the end, Oates introduces narrative doubt into what is already an unstable situation. Eventually, Adriane and Wolfman (seriously, it’s hard to take the dude seriously when I keep reading his name as Wolf Man) become fraught with their situation. Wolfman is a condescending dickhead most of the time, a real exploitative piece of shit who is perfectly happy to take advantage of a young, distraught teenager (although I guess he gets a bonus point for doing the bare minimum and not sleeping with her). Once his own position is compromised, he then introduces all kinds of unreliability into the narrative. Wolfman breaks character, and tells Adriane that this whole Wisconsin experience is a virtual construct. He is extremely convincing. It’s a “what a twist!” moment that is actually way more plausible than the actual story being told. Then he reverts back to “no, actually time travel is real.” This, naturally, confuses Adriane and the reader.

Shortly after this confession, Wolfman maniacally decides to take Adriane and escape to the West Coast, in direct violation of The Instructions (so many proper nouns!). This move makes no sense if Wolfman knows this is a virtual construct. However, his plan fails spectacularly, as there is no way out of the ten-mile radius they’re seemingly trapped in. Which is a point in the favor of the virtual-construct idea. But then Wolfman disappears, presumed dead, and Adriane is zapped into a much more malleable form. She loses her memories, and then winds up on some hippie farm with some dude she “loves,” without ever understanding how she got there or where she came from. Then she reads a book and it’s made fairly clear to the reader that she’s dreaming. How much of Hazards of Time Travel is a dream? What was real? Any of it? The reason this kind of plot device is unsatisfying is because once you introduce this kind of unreliability to the proceedings, it’s really hard to care. Is Adriane even real? I don’t know and neither do you, so whatever. It’s a shame, because there are some cool elements. The novel just never really feels particularly vital.

Posted in Books, Dystopia | Leave a comment

The Waste Land Project: Les Fleurs du mal

 

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Poetry * Charles Baudelaire * Edgy French Poems * 1857

Synopsis

Oh hell yes who is down for some 19th century French poetry!? Word bitch I know you love it, Baudelaire is all up in your face right now! *Fireworks, explosions, and a rippin’ guitar version of La Marseillaise* FRANCE! Huh? Oh, sorry, I just came back from a parallel dimension where the French have the same stereotypes applied to them as the United States and it was weird. I’d never heard of a Bordeaux-bong before but those French hillbillies know how to party. And so many guns! Anyway, this bit is brought you by me being way the hell out of my comfort zone and not really knowing how to talk properly about French poetry. The two main hurdles to this are minor, I admit. The first being that I know like six words of French and the other being that I don’t really like poetry. And yet I’m here because of a very silly thing I’m doing concerning a poem I like, so we might as well see what’s going on here. I am so mad at T.S. Eliot for liking what he likes, by the way.

First, obviously, I read Les Fleurs du mal in translation. I’m better at reading French than speaking it (or understanding it being spoken) by orders of magnitude, but am still nowhere near being able to get through this thing in its native language. For this I used the 1954 translation by William Aggeler because it’s online and free. Don’t you judge me. Second, since Eliot only references the Preface and one other poem, that’s mostly what I’m going to be talking about. However, I did read the entire collection. It’s… poems. Baudelaire seems unpleasant. I did a cursory Wikipedia reading about his biography afterwards and that pretty much confirms what comes across in his writing. Like, imagine a French poet. You got it. He was into whores and booze and opium and spent all his money pretty much as soon as he got it. He died young. The only other things in his poetry that stand out to me, aside from what I’m going to get into regarding T.S. Eliot, are his sulking misogyny and his preening narcissism concerning his own angst.

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I don’t like that bug-flower. It’s… evil.

While I understand that these poems would have been considered quite shocking in the mid-19th century, they’re still hard to take seriously in 2018. I don’t mean in the academic sense. I don’t want to cheapen anyone’s scholarly ambitions, and there is plenty in Baudelaire’s poetry that is culturally and historically prescient. That said, if you’re picking up a copy of Flowers of Evil because you feel like reading some poetry, well, you just picked up a book called Flowers of Evil. There’s a poem in here where Baudelaire compares his girlfriend to a bloated, festering roadkill. She didn’t like it. There’s quite a bit of Baudelaire writing directly to grand concepts, such as Beauty and Ennui, as if they are people. I get that’s a thing but that doesn’t make it any less precious. It is made very clear that Baudelaire has jungle fever, which whatever, but it often reads as racial fetishizing. I guess given the date of 1857 that’s a step in the right direction? It’s still uncomfortable. Look, I get that most of this distaste is simply me and cynicism, but I have a hard time taking this French edgelord seriously.

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Pretty sure this is the best cover I’ve ever seen for a book of poetry.

Discussion

You know who didn’t have that problem? T.S. Eliot. It’s pretty clear that Eliot thought Baudelaire was like, the coolest shit ever. And this, on its face, is very strange considering the kind of person and artist T.S. Eliot was. That is to say, Eliot was extremely conservative and boring, and in many ways the exact opposite of the apparent hedonist that was Baudelaire. Of course, Eliot has always been something of an outlier when it comes to his personality. Generally, we think of artistic genius coming from the Baudelaire-type. We expect artists to push boundaries both artistically and socially. T.S. Eliot, of course, was a bank clerk. None of his Modernist contemporaries wanted to hang out with him on account of how goddamn boring he was. If Eliot were to go back in time to meet Baudelaire, the French poet would have upended a glass of wine on his head and ditched him for a Haitian prostitute. And yet, when it comes to the writing, the lifestyle of the artist matters less than the words on the page, and when reading the poem in question here, it’s pretty clear where Eliot’s inspiration came from.

There are two references to Baudelaire in the first section of The Waste Land, both of which come towards the end. The first, and most illuminating, comes from the poem “Les Sept Vieillards,” or “The Seven Old Men.” Eliot does not directly reference the Baudelaire poem, but it’s pretty clear where he was cribbing from. Here’s the first three stanzas of “Les Sept Viellards,” in English because I am lame.

Teeming, swarming city, city full of dreams,
Where specters in broad day accost the passer-by!
Everywhere mysteries flow like the sap in a tree
Through the narrow canals of the mighty giant.

One morning, while in a gloomy street the houses,
Whose height was increased by the mist, simulated
The quais of a swollen river, and while
— A setting that was like the actor’s soul —

A dirty yellow fog inundated all space,
I was following, steeling my nerves like a hero,
Arid arguing with my already weary soul,
A squalid street shaken by the heavy dump-carts.

I realize that I’ve spent a bit of time writing about how much I don’t care for Baudelaire, but I will also state that this is one of his better poems. That’s some excellent imagery, and it’s no surprise that Eliot leaned on it for his own work. Here now is the relevant bit from The Waste Land:

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes down King William Street,

To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

And at this point it becomes pretty clear what Eliot is borrowing for his own masterpiece. Baudelaire, for all his borderline adolescent edginess, was also speaking from a place of disconnection and ennui. He hated that about himself, I think, but his poetry also reflects a changing world. Paris in the mid-19th century was a major European city just beginning a vast transformation that would end up, some sixty years later, fully industrialized and running headlong into the catastrophe that was the First World War. Now, The Waste Land is entirely about the disconnection of humanity from the modern, overcrowded and industrial city. Which is to say, the Unreal City. Yet Eliot’s London was only part of the modernizing process that was only just getting underway in Baudelaire’s time. Even before the unspeakable horror of the war, city life was becoming increasingly and rapidly dehumanized.

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I get why the goth kids would be into it.

The shared images are pretty clear, I think, and both speak to this feeling of the amorphous anonymity of modern city life. Most striking and obvious is the image of fog, which sits stinking on top of the city and diffuses reality. Baudelaire’s fog is yellow and Eliot’s is brown, but either way, eww. Fog in both cases is deployed to mute the senses and confuse the individual. Individuals, in fact, don’t seem to really exist at all, outside of the discontented author. Baudelaire speaks of a “teeming, swarming city” but also “dreams” and “specters” and “mysteries that flow.” Despite the clear reality of so many people in one place, there is always a sense of disconnection and ambiguity. Individuals cease to exist and simply “flow.” Eliot is a bit more concise, and distills all that with the term “Unreal City,” which gets right to the point. We’ll revisit this next time, because Eliot also invokes Dante here, but that’s a whole other article.

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Sometimes these articles take me places I never even considered. I’m not going to read this, as I would like the manga version of Baudelaire to reside in my imagination forever.

We’re not quite done with The Burial of the Dead, but we’re going to skip to the last line because I don’t want to talk about Baudelaire any more. The last line of the first section of the poem is taken directly from Au Lecteur, where Baudelaire addresses the reader and talks a mess of shit. The line in question is this: “You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, — mon frère!” Baudelaire is basically talking about the general evil of humanity, but that of ennui in particular, and then calls his readers hypocrites. But it’s cool because we’re the same. Baudelaire, and the reader, and T.S. Eliot, all value purity and goodness but spend the vast majority of our time being barely repentant sinners out for a good time. Well, you got me there. The modern city, of course, is full of these hypocrites, and their half-lived lives all look the same in the brown and yellow fog.

Posted in Books, Ennui, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

Far Cry 5

far cry 5-1

Game * Ubisoft Montreal * Apocalyptic Hippy Drug Cult * 2018

Synopsis

Stories are hard. Game stories are really hard. Whenever I find myself being critical of a story in a video game, I have to remind myself just what the writers are having to deal with. I can’t think of a plot to save my life, let alone having to consider for player choice. It’s no accident that the best stories in games have so far been guided experiences. The more freedom you allow for, the more outcomes you have to account for. Most of the time, the compromise is to let the player do whatever, write your story, and if the two things are not compatible, whatever. That’s not ideal, but it’s something we can live with if the narrative is good. I’m beginning with this preamble so I don’t feel bad when I talk mad shit about the story in Far Cry 5, because it is just spectacularly bad. Like, aggressively bad. It’s one thing if the story was an afterthought, but the game is constantly shoving it (literally) in your face. It’s a good thing the rest of the game is pretty great, because otherwise this would be a total shitshow.

It would be remiss not to mention the issue of expectations surrounding the release of this game. One of the early trailers for the game presented the world and story as a super-serious take on contemporary America. Specifically, red state middle America. Far Cry 5 takes place in Montana, the first of the series to take place in the United States. The overall plot of the game concerns a large, violent cult that takes over a big swath of Montana. There is a resistance, of which the player is the spearhead. Personally, I think people got a little too excited over the pre-release footage. I’m not expecting insightful commentary from a fucking Far Cry game. Yes, it would have been impressive, but honestly, they need to actually create a functioning narrative before they worry about employing nuance and subtle social commentary, you know? Regardless, all that was a long time ago. I’m writing about what’s here, not about daydreams of a game that doesn’t exist.

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The game is extremely pretty, as is Montana. And despite all this other stuff, Far Cry 5 does a good job of capturing the look and feel of the mountains.

The best part of the game is the setting. Montana is a beautiful state, and the game does a fantastic job of creating a video game version of it. There were plenty of moments when I’d be virtually hiking a trail with my dog buddy, cresting a mountain trail as the sun rose over a breathtaking river valley, a smattering of wildflowers at my feet. The environment is so evocative, those moments were triggering personal memories of hiking, to the point where I was thinking about how nice a mountain morning smells when the sun starts warming up the trees. Of course, the Far Cry version of Montana is a fantasy land. But it’s pleasant. You can fly fish in this game, and if you flick a fly out into a brisk mountain stream, you can count on landing a massive trout in about thirty seconds. Ah, if only. Also, this version of Montana is lousy with bears and shit. And no matter where you go on the map, even if it appears to be a remote, alpine lake, there are always people there, which is not how Montana works. Oh, and in addition to my dog buddy I would also roll with my pet cougar, named Peaches. Far Cry 5 is often a deeply silly game.

I like the silliness, personally. I know there are those who were hoping for a more grounded experience, but nah. It was clear pretty early on that I could just turn the sound down and listen to podcasts while zooming around the massive game world, getting up to nonsense, and have a pretty good time. The game gives you plenty to do. There are all the usual Far Cry things to get up to, so if you’re sick of the formula maybe pass on this. Otherwise, it’s a good time. Sometimes it’s fun to hop on a jet ski and race across a lake down a river, shooting at a baddie in a plane with grenade launcher and then jump off a sick waterfall, you know? But then the story happens, and the game makes sure you look at it. And now I’ve got to talk about it, especially the ending. I emphatically believe that the narrative as a whole is pointless, but if it’s something you want to check out, skip the next bit I guess.

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This is from the opening scene of the game. Everyone looks at you like this when they talk. Get your Koresh-looking mug out my face, ya dingus.

Discussion

I sketched a very brief outline of the story above, but to reiterate, Far Cry 5 is about a violent cult which has taken over a large region of what appears to be central Montana. At the beginning of the game the player, heretofore referred to as “Rook,” is travelling with the county Sherriff, a couple of Deputies, and a single federal officer, to confront the leader of this well-armed cult, Joseph Seed. He basically looks like David Koresh, yellow-tinted blu-blockers and all. Most of the generic cultists look like Charles Manson. Anyway, the idea is to arrest this dude. Yes, the megalomaniacal, charismatic leader of what appears to be thousands of deranged cultists who are armed to the teeth, is to be taken into custody by like five people. Look, there are plot holes, and then there are Far Cry 5 plot holes, which warp time and space and if you get too close will compress you into a singularity. So, you make your move and surprise, it all goes bad and your buddies all get captured by the cultists and you’re eventually saved by a grizzled member of the resistance who gives you guns and sets you loose on the world. Fine, whatever.

Since Far Cry 5 is a video game-ass video game, the world is comprised of three regions. Each region is led by a sub-leader of the Eden’s Gate cult (like the Heaven’s Gate cult, but more aggressive). These leaders are the brothers of Joseph and the not-actually sister. Each region has its own flavor (mountains, river valley, farmland) and each leader has their own quirks. One uses torture to convert people, another “culls the herd,” and Faith just douses everyone with psychotropic drugs to fuck with people. Once you get into the world, the idea is to wreck shit up until you’ve weakened the cult’s operation enough to flush out the leader. Take out all three leaders and you force the final confrontation. Again, all that is totally fine. I like watching gauges fill up and numbers getting bigger as much as the next person. Especially when the game gives you a ton of freedom to pursue these goals. You can do lengthy story quests, or smaller side quests, or liberate outposts, or just randomly blow shit up, it all fills the meter. The problem is, when Far Cry wants you to have some story, you’re gonna have some story, whether you want it or not.

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Kitty!

I just liberated a cult outpost high in the mountains. It was an abandoned radar facility, so there were a few dilapidated towers with still-functioning dishes and whatnot, but it was perched among the rocky pinnacles of the mountains. It took me a while to clear out, too, because the cult’s fucking planes kept spotting me and I was trying to be sneaky. Well, I eventually made it happen, and my intention was to celebrate by climbing up above the outpost, jumping off, and seeing how far I could wingsuit across the map. I was betting it would be pretty far! The thing is, I didn’t notice that I had filled my “resistance gauge” past a little pip, which triggers the next story scene. So here I am, innocently gliding along, hundreds of feet above the valley floor, free as an actual bird. But the game says: no. This you will not do, because it is story time. So, mid-glide, the screen gets swimmy and fades to black. The conceit is that two or three times per region, the cult uses its drug-guns to capture you. Because they want to convert you or whatever. Instead of doing the cool thing I wanted, now I have to sit through whatever boring nonsense the game thinks I need to have. It sucks.

Since Far Cry is a first-person game, the story unfolds in a first-person viewpoint, which doesn’t necessarily have to a problem, but it is. Every single character in the game is a close talker. Every single cut scene is a long, drawn out shot of someone looking straight into the camera and explaining why they’re going to break you, or thanking you for saving them, or whatever. This means every scene feels like a shot from an early-90s FMV game featuring B actors hamming it up. None of the characters are in any way interesting, so listening to them talk at you is tedious at best. Every scene is over the top, but it seems like the writers were still trying to take the story seriously. I guess? Mostly it’s a mess, and nothing makes any sense. Everyone has planes and helicopters, but nobody thinks to like, leave to retrieve backup. Some of this has to do with the ending, which I’ll get to shortly, but mostly it’s just confusing. It’s like the writers watched Red Dawn and said, let’s do that but with cultists instead of Communists.

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I’m bad at fishing. This game’s best power fantasy is catching 12 pound trout every cast.

Okay, speaking of Communists, one more thing that sucks before we get to the ending. Let it be known that politically I lean pretty far to the left. I’m convinced conservatives in this country have lost their collective way, and that in the pursuit of winning elections they have eschewed what used to be core values. That said, Far Cry 5 trades in a lot lazy stereotypes. There are multiple sidequests which task you in finding beloved pickup trucks. There’s a whole subset of mini-missions called “prepper stashes,” and while the actual game elements of these are some of the most creative fun to be had, the idea that every hillbilly in the West has a bugout bag and a bomb shelter is annoying. On the other hand, everyone swears a little too creatively and there’s less casual racism than I would expect from the rural West. I have mixed feelings. And in the interest of full disclosure, I live in an area of Oregon which is extremely purple, politically speaking. There are old hippies and young liberals and salty old ranchers and young dipshits with lifted trucks with charming stickers which say things like “fuck your feelings, snowflake” and “a towel is not a hat.” On second thought, maybe the game isn’t too far off the mark in this aspect.

If Far Cry 5 could be subtitled “Plot Hole: The Game,” I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that the ending is completely unearned and jarring. In retrospect, I get it. They were going for a meta-commentary situation like Spec Ops: The Line or Bioshock in which the game challenges the notion of player control. The problem is, those games put in the work to earn their story, and Far Cry 5 does not. You spend the entire game taking down this cult little-by-little, despite the fact that the cult can seemingly abduct you at will, and at first the final confrontation seems to go as you’d expect. Joseph Seed has effortlessly kidnapped all your friends (despite the fact that his operation is supposedly greatly weakened by your ongoing efforts) and has used his drugs to turn them against you. Then you get a choice: resist or walk away. Obviously, I resist. I proceeded to save my friends by shooting Joseph in the head twenty times, which does not kill him. Then, when he’s finally handcuffed, uh-oh! A fucking nuke goes off in the background and suddenly the world is being obliterated in a hellstorm of nuclear fire. It’s the end of the world, Joseph Seed was right, and everyone is fucked.

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This is about as close to actual political commentary as the game gets. Considering the state of the narrative, that’s for the best.

The game sets next to no groundwork for this ending to pay off. Oh, every once in a while, after a story beat or a liberated outpost, your character ends up near a radio. Most of the time, the radio is an afterthought because I was rarely in a vehicle long enough to hear even the first third of “Stranglehold.” Anyway, I’d occasionally catch a snippet of news and I did notice that the radio was telling me that the world situation was getting bad. These snippets were super vague, short-lived, and quickly forgotten, however. Other than that, nope! Actually, as the car zooms away from the atomic fireball, I assumed that Joseph set them off. His three lieutenants had their base in old missile silos, after all. Whatever, though, because in the end you find yourself under Joseph’s control. Because as a motherfucking nuclear explosion is going off in the background, you still, for reasons that don’t exist, pick up the handcuffed evil cult leader and take him with you. Then, when your car gets K.O.’d by a tree, Joseph is the first to regain consciousness, and of course he wants to gloat. Which he does by handcuffing you underground and staring deep into your eyes for the fiftieth time and telling you he was right. Bad guy wins.

And I don’t care. The entire story is so poorly handled from the very beginning that I could not possibly begin to feel any kind of way about any of these characters. And to be fair, I don’t really know what the answer is. I mean, other than leaving the evil cult leader behind to get vaporized because that it what literally anyone would do! Ugh. Anyway, it’s not like a good-faith effort wasn’t made to create striking characters and situations. But none of the villains are even remotely sympathetic, which makes them incredibly shallow and one-note. Same for your allies, who all have a single distinct characteristic and little else. The player character is a completely empty vessel. Here I thought we were moving away from the silent protagonist, but I guess not. That’s a big reason none of the characters land. They’re always talking right up in your face and you never say a word. The narrative is disappointing, and the way it’s forced on the player is frustrating, but at least now I’m free to parachute out of a float-plane and machine gun a moose on my way down. At least Far Cry 5 lets me have my own fun when it’s story is mercifully over.

Posted in Cults, Games | Leave a comment

Last Days

last days novel

Novel * Adam Nevill * Cults, but maybe also Demons * 2012

Synopsis

Creating legitimate spooks on the page is hard. Sustaining those spooks over the entirety of a novel is damn near impossible. Like, I love Stephen King, but rarely do those books actually creep me out. I’m there for character and story. Sure, there are scenes in books like It or The Shining which, whew, but over the course of the whole novel? It’s super rare. And that’s because books can be put down. In fact, I fucking dare you to read It in one sitting. But you know, that’s how reading works. Your mind just puts the story on ‘suspend’ when you have to go like, do things. Yet that constant interruption is always working against the atmosphere of a story. Horror stories, or at least the ones I like, are critically dependent on mood and atmosphere. The slow build and creeping terror and hints at unspeakable darkness, that’s the kind of thing that works for me. And generally, regardless of how well constructed the story is, when I have to set the book down to feed the cat, or sleep, or even go outside, the intrusion of reality hits the reset button on the atmosphere. It’s rough.

Last Days almost pulls it off, which is remarkable. Unfortunately, things fall apart a little toward the end and it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Yet that the novel works as well as it does for two-thirds of its length is damn near a miracle. Really, the only potential caveat I would throw out there concerns personal taste. If you’re looking for exploding torsos and flaming decapitations, this book is not that. Personally, I don’t find gore scary. It’s just gross and when it comes to horror, disgust is not my prime motivator. Last Days is extremely creepy, but the price of that is a slower pace. That said, for this kind of story, the pacing is spot on. Many times, the slow-dread story leans way too slow. Here, scary shit is going down within fifty pages or so, and it just keeps getting worse, slowly but surely. Towards the end, it seems like Nevill loses control of the pacing and things work towards a conclusion that seems a little rushed. That’s a shame, but I don’t feel like the underwhelming ending undermines the novel as a whole.

I should note that there is a conceit to this novel, which is basically “what if a found-footage film, but in book form?” I was skeptical at first, but it works. The protagonist is a guerrilla documentary director named Kyle. The story begins as he is being recruited to film a documentary about a cult from the 70s that met a grisly end. Last Days relies on a lot of cult apocrypha, pulling details from everything from the Rajneesh to Jonestown to Manson to David Koresh in order to create its own fictional fucked-up cult, The Temple of the Last Days. This cult was led by a narcissistic, charismatic leader Sister Katherine. The cult eventually self-destructed in the Arizona desert in an explosion of self-inflicted violence. Max, the executive producer who hires Kyle, has an intense interest in this cult. Not so much because of the crime angle – that’s been done. No, Max is interested in the cult’s dealings with the supernatural. Max’s proposal seems sketchy as all hell, but Kyle is in a tight spot. Since he’s a pure artist or whatever, he’s also in catastrophic debt. Max offers to pay him enough to erase that debt, but Kyle has to endure a grueling shooting schedule. Oh, and then the demons show up.

Discussion

Cults are fascinating and creepy in their own right. From the outside looking in, it’s hard to wrap your mind around why anyone would willingly give themselves over to an obvious exploitative sociopath. As I noted, The Temple of the Last Days is modelled on any number of real-world cult situations. Sister Katherine is an amalgam of Manson, Koresh, and Jim Jones, and her power over her followers is as extreme as those guys. Of course, nearly every cult trades in the notion of apocalypse. The world is filled with institutions that feel like they’re crumbling, slowly falling apart, and maybe they are (they definitely are). Citizens of modern nations feel this intrinsically, but there are those on the fringes who apparently feel this more acutely. To the point where they’re willing to give themselves completely over to someone else in order to just not have to deal with it. Then, once they’re in and find themselves in a dire situation, it’s extremely difficult to get out again. One of the things Last Days does is provide an insight into people who joined such an awful group in the first place.

Since the novel is ostensibly the story of a film being made, much of the tension is brought to the story by the testimony of those who escaped the cult’s final bloodbath. The Temple of the Last Days officially self-destructed in 1975 when Sister Katherine ordered her fervent follower Brother Belial to murder everyone left, including herself. Before that, people either left or escaped. They were marked. And, as Kyle discovered, they were haunted by more than memories. Each interview ratchets up the atmosphere of dread, partly because of the stories they tell, but also because of the attending events that parallel each character’s interview. The film conceit brings Kyle into contact with these people, where we get an inside perspective of each stage of the cult’s existence. It’s all bad, and once the interview is over the atmosphere is well and truly oppressive, that’s when Nevill kicks in the supernatural shit. It works. It works really well. The creepies themselves are also well constructed. They manifest physically, and as such are all the more menacing. They follow. In no time at all Kyle is marked, and in true horror fashion is harried and terrified for his life as he continues to track down the cult’s secrets.

Okay, let’s talk about that ending. Once again, there is a ton to recommend this novel. If you’re still trying to make up your mind, bail now and read it, then come back and commiserate with me. Now, I think I hung with Last Days up until Nevill starts explaining things. Even then, I could vibe with it, although I think the origin story of the creepies was unnecessary. Max sends Kyle off to Belgium where he learns about a Protestant cult led by some bloke who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sister Katherine. This cult was destroyed by Catholic authorities, kind of like a medieval Waco, Texas situation. Everyone died, burned to death. It was a bad scene. And of course they were dealing with demonic forces, which apparently animated these people into the bone-ghosts which chase Kyle around.

These explanations demystify the story, which has the unfortunate effect of dispersing some of the atmosphere. Still, I appreciate the plotting involved, and it’s a cool idea. But then Max and Kyle go off to America to end it once and for all, and I wasn’t feeling it. I don’t like Jed, a last-minute character addition that sucks. If he had been around earlier, maybe it would have worked better. But as it is he just shows up with some guns and the three of them storm the castle to take on the reincarnation of Sister Katherine and it all just seems so ill-advised. The scene is full of creepy imagery, but it just doesn’t feel the same as the first two-thirds of the novel. Still, the good vastly outweighs the bad, and now I have a new author to get into.

Posted in Books, Cults, Demons! | Leave a comment

Christine

christine1

Novel * Stephen King * Toxic Nostalgia or Spooky Car? * 1983

Synopsis

Teens. Gross, right? It was gross being a teenager. Just kinda greasy and anxious and horny and frustrating (relating to the previous thing, usually). Blech. I will never, for as long as I live, understand people who look back at their teenage years with fondness. These people are those sad motherfuckers who’ve been left behind by life. They’re like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, morose and sullen, saying things like “How much you wanna bet I could throw this football over them mountains?” If you want to see this in the wild, just look up any video from the 80s or 90s on Youtube and read the comments. “Now that’s real music, unlike that Taylor Swift trash.” “I would give anything to be in the 90s again!” “Those were the best years of my life. MAGA!” “Look around and you don’t see no fuckin smartphones!” Seriously, it’s just the saddest shit. Especially now that a lot of those people are my age. Or younger. I mean sure, I remember the music I listened to in high school with fondness. I still listen to quite a bit of it. Same with movies, or books, or whatever. But I also remember why I was attracted to all that stuff in the first place, and it was because it was a refuge from my adolescence.

I bring all this up because I read Christine when I was the same age as the principal characters, and as such I think I missed the point of the novel. If you’re one of the four or five people who don’t know Christine, it’s the one about the evil car what runs people over. It’s about a seventeen-year-old loser named Arnie Cunningham who fixes up an old ’58 Plymouth Fury. The car is possessed or something and goes on a rampage. That’s pretty much what I remembered before I reread it, and it’s the reputation of the novel. Christine is the book Stephen King critics like to make fun of because on its face, the premise is silly. You’ve heard of haunted houses, but what about a haunted car? Ooooh, spooks! It didn’t take me very long, however, to realize that Christine is only tangentially about a possessed classic car. More than anything, it’s about how terrifying it is to be a high school senior in America, standing on the precipice of adulthood. That’s an easy feeling to forget when you get older, and there are parts of this novel that are a stark reminder of what it was like.

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I’m generally not a fan of the covers of this era of reissues, but this one is griz as heck.

Christine is also about nostalgia in general. This book, published in 1983, takes place a few years before in 1977. These dates are important, because Christine herself is a product of the 1950’s, which became a huge source of nostalgia-fueled media right around this time. Grease, Happy Days, it was a thing, not unlike the 80s and 90s being the subject of current nostalgia-based media (does anyone really think Stranger Things would be as successful if it wasn’t awash in hyper-detailed nostalgia?). Christine the evil car is locked into a particular time and place. She always tunes the radio to the oldies station. She’s a big old honking gas guzzler with fins and shit. Oh, and she has an insatiable lust for human blood. The novel is more about the juxtaposition between the era Christine represents and the teenage characters trying to look forward than it is about being scary. Because it really isn’t all that scary. Like, Christine is gonna kill some fools, there’s not a lot of suspense around that. If anything, Christine trades less in spooks and more in the existential dread of being seventeen.

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Not to imply that older is better, but I like the design of the first edition best.

Discussion

Christine has an odd, three part structure. The first and third sections are narrated in the first person, from the perspective of Arnie Cunningham’s only friend, Dennis Guilder. The middle bit is all in third person, since Dennis is taken out of the action by a plot point. It’s a weird choice, and I’m still not sure I like it. I get it, King was a young author trying new things, but it’s jarring to move from Dennis’ perspective to a more omniscient viewpoint. Especially since I enjoyed Dennis’ voice. I will note that even though the narrative is being told from a point four years in the future, the prose still feels a little too mature for a supposed 22 year old. Any more it seems like people in their early twenties are basically teenagers, but maybe that wasn’t the case in 1983? I don’t know, I was four. Anyway, Dennis’ point of view is important not only for plot reasons, but because we’re getting a running commentary on being a teenager. Dennis isn’t a loser. He’s on the football team, he has no problems getting dates, he’s well liked. And he’s still miserable. It’s an important thing to remember, and it colors the narrative as a whole.

Considering the realistic light that King shines on the teenage experience coupled with the fact that the physical manifestation of nostalgia is an evil car, the novel doesn’t necessarily portray nostalgia as inherently bad. Every chapter in the book has a small epigraph, which are all song lyrics, mostly from the era of rock n’ roll that endlessly plays on Christine’s radio. First of all, can you imagine how much that would cost in licensing nowadays? There are three full pages of song credits in this thing! More importantly, though, those song lyrics were chosen because King has a deep love of that era of music. Further, it’s an illustration that there is still value in the things that shape us. Those old rockers are still relevant to those that love them. Personally, I can still put on Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana or whatever and still find value in those songs I’ve been listening to most of my life. The key difference is I still try and find new music I like. Not just music, but experiences, because to exclude the present for the past is toxic. It’s a narrow, unforgiving way to look at the world, and deeply unfulfilling because you’ve basically decided that nothing will ever be as good as it was, so what’s the point?

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The moral of Christine is: Don’t be Uncle Rico.

In Christine, the manifestation of this viewpoint is Roland LeBay, the evil bastard who sold the car to Arnie at the begging of the story. Now he croak-boats pretty quick, but of course his angry, evil spirit inhabits the car and eventually possesses Arnie as well, so we get quite a bit of his character. As the baddie, he obviously sucks. He’s just angry constantly, he was essentially responsible for the death of his family, mostly because he was obsessed. Obsessed with his vehicle, obsessed with the “shitters,” who have been keeping him down his whole life. Eventually, after being estranged from anyone even remotely close to him, all he had left was the car, which he also left to rot. And the entire time, Roland was locked into a single time and place, 1958, the one point in his horrid life that was good to him. Poor, overmatched Arnie is subsumed by the all-encompassing hatred and obsession. He was a perfect vessel, considering his status as a high school loser. Still, if anyone had more reason to look forward to an uncertain future, it was him. After all, college would have represented a new start away from oppressive parents and unpleasant peers. Unfortunately, the car actually was haunted, so he never really had a chance. And if the epilogue is any indication, Dennis may not be wondering if he can throw footballs over mountains, but he will definitely be focused on his past. What with the murder cars and all.

Posted in Books, Nostalgia | Leave a comment

After the End of the World

aftertheendoftheworld

Novel * Jonathan L. Howard * Lovecraft Nazis * 2017

Synopsis

Generally speaking, when I begin a new series I like to give each entry some space before diving back in. That I am not doing so this time – and I don’t mean for this to sound how it’s going to sound, but here we are – is not because of the quality of the series in question. Like the first book, Carter & Lovecraft, After the End of the World is flawed but fine. I didn’t read this hot on the heels of the first book because I was just so besotted with the world I couldn’t wait. No, I did a thing that might not sound all that surprising, considering. I went to the library! It was great, they have all these books just lying around for you to pick up and take home. For free! What a world. Seriously, though, it’s been quite a long time since I’ve had a library card and I couldn’t really tell you why. Part of the reason, I guess, is that I like amassing a library of my own. My partner is the same way (actually worse), so we both hoard books, which has led to upsettingly disorganized bookshelves which are frankly being asked to do more than they bargained for. The thing about the library is, though, it’s easy to accidentally pick up the second book in a series without realizing it, which is why I had to circle back and go to book one. So here we are, and Jonathan Howard can take his sweet time publishing book three because I am not exactly dying with anticipation over here.

After the End of the World picks up fairly close on the heels of Carter & Lovecraft, which means the state of the world has drastically changed. The conceit of the first book was that there is a vast, undulating universe out there which can be “folded” to create a different reality. Or something. As I said of the first book’s ending, it gets vaguely metaphysical and it’s hard to really discern what the hell is happening. I doesn’t actually matter all that much. The end result of Dan Carter’s latent mystical powers is that the world has fundamentally and concretely changed. The first novel largely took place in Providence, Rhode Island (a town I visited for a couple of hours once and enjoyed, although what do I know). The sequel takes place in its mysterious doppelganger, Arkham. Well, the first bit anyhow. The idea is that everyone’s favorite racist garbage human, H.P. Lovecraft, was familiar with the “unfolded” world and changed the course of history. Something about the Necronomicon. Look, once you start digging at the hows and whys of this world, the answers are difficult to come by. The important thing is this new world is bad, and Carter and Lovecraft would like it to go back.

Mostly, it’s because of the Nazis. In this version of the world, World War Two never really got off the ground. Even before the United States got involved, Nazi Germany managed to end hostilities by apparently nuking Moscow in 1942. In this alternate history, the Holocaust never happened (instead, Hitler just forcibly moved all the Jews to Madagascar) and instead they moved their Nazi genocide to Russia and its satellite states. As a result of this, the US didn’t become the dominant power of the 20th century, and is basically second banana to the Nazis. None of this sits particularly well with Carter or Lovecraft, although at first blush it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole hell of a lot either of them can do about it. Until they do. Mostly because, in this world, the Nazis are a lot like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones movies. Which is to say they’re way into spooky, evil, supernatural shit. And if I told you the Nazis were trying to harness the power of the unknowable ancients, well, what else are you reading this for?

Discussion

The first novel in this series attempted to differentiate itself in the oddly specific subgenre of Lovecraftian horror by taking on the guise of a noir mystery. Dan Carter is the hardboiled private investigator who gets sucked up into realm of Weird Shit by a mysterious stranger. To his credit, Howard does not really try the same trick in After the End of the World. The problem is there isn’t really a replacement gimmick. There’s the whole alternate-history angle, but I guess I’m just plain not sold on the world that’s been offered here. While both of these books are obviously connected, the shared world seems incongruous, as if the author had no real concrete plan in place for what the series was supposed to be. I think the key mistake was to move the series out of the world we know in to the “unfolded.” It’s like if Stranger Things just moved entirely to the Upside Down. It’s inherently less compelling.

It doesn’t take long for Dan Carter to be thrust back into the Weird Shit, although in both books he needs a third party to force him into these situations. On the one had I get it. The author is trying for a more realistic, concrete approach to the fantastical. It’s pretty clear he’s trying to ground his protagonists with real-world concerns like, you know, paying rent. So Carter needs a day job, and that’s his first priority. The whole trying to reconstruct the world as he knows it is a secondary concern. Which, I don’t know. If I were instrumental in undoing reality I would probably put a little more effort into figuring out how and why so I could fix it. Instead, Carter goes back to his P.I. job in New York and shrugs it off until the mysterious Henry Weston basically shoves him into a situation where he can get something done. Of course Weston’s motives are a mystery, but he’s clearly an agent of some inhuman power. Regardless, Carter and Lovecraft end up in the Aleutian Islands where the Nazis are up to no good, if you can believe that.

Look, I don’t want to come off like I’m trashing this book. As I said of the first one, and as I mentioned above, it’s totally fine. The story moves, the dialog is snappy, and there is fun to be had. I enjoy Emily Lovecraft quite a bit, even if she does brush up against the sassy black lady cliché now and again. Still, given the other characters in this series, someone needs to have some sass. Once again the banter sometimes feels a little forced, and there are some clunky moments of writing, although nothing as egregious as in the first novel. Mostly I’m just not sure where any of this is going. By the end of After the End of the World, Carter and Lovecraft don’t have much more in the way of answers. Emily can fuck with the Necronomicon now, I guess, and the Nazis have been temporarily thwarted in their schemes. Henry Weston, the inhuman agent, has revealed himself. But going forward? Who knows. This could be a trilogy, or it could be a never-ending serial. While I like surprise and discovery as much as the next person, there’s something aimless about this series that bothers me. I guess I’ll find out when the next one comes out. And I make it back to the library.

Posted in Books, Cosmic Horror, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Doom

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“Film” * Andrzej Bartkowiak * Doom “The Rock” Doomson * 2005

Synopsis

Look, sometimes you’re feeling fat and sleepy but not quite fat and sleepy enough to actually sleep so you have to put on the dumbest possible thing in order to shut your idiot brain up so you can finally surrender to sweet sweet oblivion. So I watched Doom. Does anyone remember this thing? Because I have a distinct memory of seeing this in the theater, but I haven’t seen it since and before rewatching it I couldn’t tell you single thing about it. Wait, no, I can. There’s that first-person sequence at the end that I totally remember, mostly because it just sucked so much. Like, not your regular kind of suck either, but a whole new category of suck that belongs to Doom and nothing else. Anyway, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. The whole movie is bad, but even if you’re only just now hearing this movie even exists, you knew that. It’s called Doom. You don’t even have to realize it’s based on a video game to know it’s terrible.

Dumb, bad movies can still be fun, of course. It helps if the movie knows that it’s dumb and rolls with it, and Doom absolutely knows what kind of movie it is. One of the first things The Rock says (this being before his Hollywood identity shift to his actual name) has the phrase “extreme prejudice” in it, and that’s a thing we say to make fun of dumb action movies, not one that actually exists anywhere. Yet here we are, and it sets the tone. The movie also assumes you’re here because you fucking loved Doom in the 90’s. It is correct in this assumption, which I guess is why I showed up to see it in the theater. Right away, the movie starts making ridiculous references. The Space Marines are ready to teleport to Mars to do their extreme prejudice, and one of them says to another “I guess it’s time to face my demons,” and that’s both deeply stupid and pitch perfect. Because in the game you shot a bunch of demons, you see. Oh, and then shortly after that you meet a character with the nickname “Pinky,” because that’s the nickname of one of the monsters in the game. It’s subtle like that.

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I’m here to Semper Fi with extreme prejudice, motherfucker.

Once The Rock and his gun-bros show up on Mars, it becomes readily apparent that the movie was going to fail. Somehow, some way, one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen managed to overthink its premise. Here’s what happens in the original Doom. Something, something science people open portals to actual Hell and you shoot the fuck out of a bunch of literal demons. That’s it. This fucking movie says to itself: “that’s dumb, let’s fix it.” The premise then becomes more complicated, but still stupid. Now the science people, portrayed by Rosamund Pike and her ridiculously tight sweater, are doing experiments with chromosome juice what turns people into rage zombies. Then Doom makes the worst possible mistake and tries to become an Alien movie. And no. Just… no. It’s weird because it’s clear they knew they were making a stupid fucking movie. It’s very self-aware about that. But then they pull back from just going for it and try for a more reasonable premise than the game. As it stands, most of the movie is just sweaty beef-men shining their flashlights in my fucking face every eleven seconds. It’s a weird choice.

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This way, to science!

Discussion

Now that I think about it, I guess part of the reason this movie turned out the way it did is because Doom 3 was the newest release in the game series, and it was very much focused on flashlight-based spooks. I think? I never actually played it. Anyway, the movie would have been better served had it just gone for it. All anyone wanted was to watch The Rock roam around and shoot off energy orbs at sick-looking demons with the BFG. And that’s in the movie, for about four seconds. Seriously, the BFG gets fired twice and he misses both times. That’s a good metaphor for this movie. Doom tries to pander to its idiot audience and fails. And let me be emphatically clear: I am that idiot audience. All I needed was literal demons and we’d have been good.

Instead, the movie tries to have a plot. John and Samantha Grimm (hoo boy) are siblings. John’s a Marine and Samantha is his hot science sister. She has nothing but contempt for these meatheads, let me tell you what! Anyway, blah blah blah, the chromosome juice comes in two flavors. If the person has violent tendencies, they turn into mutant-zombies. If they’re cool, they turn into Wolverine or something. As it happens, John Grimm is cool and The Rock is a psycho. I think I forgot The Rock was the bad guy in this, but it barely matters. He’s all about being a Marine first, follows orders no matter what, and shoots one of his own teammates because The Kid didn’t want to kill civilians. Then he says “Semper Fi, motherfucker,” and that’s pretty good.

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Well I certainly didn’t see that one coming.

I’m not sure what else they could have done. Doom almost would have been better if they had committed to the first-person viewpoint. That five minute sequence at the end, as it stands, is utterly pointless. And it looks bad. It’s slow and feels a lot like a ride through a shitty haunted house. The camera will slowly roll around a corner and oh no! A spook! It’s supposed to be the viewpoint of John, who is now Super-John because of the aforementioned chromosome juice, but who cares. He looks in the mirror a couple times just to remind the audience that the viewpoint is anchored to an actual person. In case you were confused. Now, you shoot the whole movie this way and maybe I’m more interested because of the novelty. Like The Rock gets mad at John he just mugs the shit out of the camera and really gets in there with his stupid Rock eyebrows. Or the demons shoot fireballs at John and then the camera turns red. Look, I don’t know. In the end it doesn’t matter all that much, because Doom is dumb. But, sadly, it’s the wrong kind of dumb.

Posted in Demons!, Film | Leave a comment