Monday, December 31, 2012

He Saw It: Manga Artist and Hiroshima Survivor Keiji Nakazawa

This past month we lost a notable comic book artist: Keiji Nakazawa, a Hiroshima survivor who used his comics to bear witness to his personal experience of war and of the atomic bomb.

He was born in 1939 in the city of Hiroshima, Japan. He was 7 years old on August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. He happened to be standing next to a concrete wall when the bomb went off, which shielded him from the blast, while a man who was talking to him burned to death. His father and most of his family perished when their home collapsed.

His family suffered from poverty and hunger during the post-war years; his baby sister died after only a few weeks. Nakazawa made a career for himself as a manga artist and moved to Tokyo, but even there he found that Hiroshima survivors were discriminated against. People feared contact with the survivors as in a later generation people would fear touching a person with AIDS, as if radiation exposure was somehow contagious.

So Nakazawa kept his experiences to himself, until his mother died in 1966. She was cremated, as was customary, but when Keiji sifted through her ashes hoping to find a piece of bone to keep to remember her, he found nothing. The radiation exposure which had ruined her health and killed her at an early age had eaten away at her bones to the point where after the cremation there was nothing left. His anger and frustration drove him to put his experiences down the only way he knew how: in comic form.

His first attempt at dramatizing his experiences was a manga titled Kuroi Ame ni Utarete ("Struck by Black Rain"), fictional story about five survivors involved in the black market in the ruins of post-war Hiroshima. He had difficulty selling this story, though, because the publishers felt it was too dark.
In 1972, the editors at Weekly Shonen Jump, one of the major manga magazines, asked several of it's artists to create autobiographical stories for a special issue. Nakazawa's story was titled Ore Wa Mita ("I Saw It"), and told how he and his mother survived the bombing of Hiroshima and how he ultimately became a manga artist. His editor encouraged him to expand the story, and the following year Nakazawa began Hadashi no Gen ("Barefoot Gen"), a fictionalized version of his experiences.

Barefoot Gen is a powerful work about the horrific toll of war on people. Nakazawa's drawing style is cartoony, influenced by Osamu Tezuka, and often goofy, which makes the graphic depictions of the bomb's aftermath all the more shocking, as when Gen encounters people whose skin seems to be melting off their bodies, or a girl with shards of glass embedded in her face, or his own family trapped in the burning rubble of a demolished house, as Nakazawa's family was, helpless to save them as they burn to death.

But Gen is a plucky and resourceful lad, determined to make a better life for his family, even in the ruins of war. Despite the atomic horror of radioactive death and the bitter struggle against society in collapse, the story of Gen is at its core a hopeful one. Nakazawa's purpose in writing it was to teach a new generation about the horror and reality of atomic war.
“I want Gen to become a source of the new generation’s strength with the strength to say no to oppose nuclear weapons, stepping on the scorched earth in Hiroshima with his bare feet and feeling the firm ground on his feet.”
Both I Saw It and Barefoot Gen have been published in English. Barefoot Gen has been adapted into two animated films and a live-action TV series.

Keiji Nakazawa died on December 19, 2012 of lung cancer at the age of 73

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A notorious comic book personality

RICHARD OLNEY passes away.

I understand that it is bad form to speak ill of the recent dead.   So I will leave his death be viewed as what it is, a human passing from the planet.

But in the comic world almost no one over the last 10 years who visited comic book message boards would not have heard or saw or participated in the fights and arguments and debates caused by this man.

I had my own experiences which I will keep to myself, other than to say he caused much frustration in my life, and I've forgiven him for it. 

But here is a fellow owing many people and the small community of comics rose up to be outraged and tried to stop him from screwing and thus owing money to anyone else.   He will be remembered for this, but there are many many many more shysters in comics than Richard Olney, and many are far worse.

The point? 

Well I think comics are too small for most people to care much about, but the creative community in  the comic book world is filled with stories of creators being robbed, with friends betraying one another, and with publishers absolutely screwing over people.

I have signed contracts with four publishers of comics in my life.  Only one fulfilled its obligations, and has been above board and moral.

VIPER COMICS is the only one.

Support moral companies.
Support creators directly.
Boycott shysters.

And again,

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Marksmen from Image/Benaroya

Marksmen Tpb
Publisher: Image/Benaroya
Writer: Dave Baxter
Artist: Javier Aranda & Garry Leach

From the publisher
“Sixty years ago the oil ran out and debts were called in. Civil war followed that splintered America into warring fiefdoms. New San Diego is a technocratic utopia that offers the last bastion of peace and prosperity, provided you live within its walls. Drake McCoy is its best protector. One of a select group of Marksmen, descended from the Navy Seals, McCoy defends the city from the numerous threats in the wasteland outside the walls. But when the oil rich Lone Star State sends a powerful army to steal New San Diego's energy technology, even the Marksmen's skill may not be enough to fend off the siege.”

If you want an action movie that has some big themes this one has more brewing than I had expected.   The setting is familiar, a post apocalyptic event leaves the world with city states who are in battle for resources.   But the consequences of this story are, on some level, able to show the factions at war in society today.   We see perfectionist utopians versus religionist isolationists fighting for dominance and resources.   However, while we are allowed to see the events through the eyes of New San Diego Marksmen, the results are more gray than black and white.

I wouldn’t say, though, that this is a subtly nuanced story.   There are many questions unasked that should be asked, and many questions left to be answered that are not.   But the dialogue is good, the scenes realistic enough, and there are human emotions on display.   The writing is good on the surface, and only really fades when some of the complexities of such a conflict are shown to fall somewhat flat.   It isn’t easy showing all sides of a question, or asking a question such as does military might, or political will replace moral responsibility and thereby action?   The Marksmen are faced with many threats, and while the questions of the story are large, the action generally takes us on a path we can identify and perhaps predict.   It wasn’t bad, nor poorly done, simply, not a thoroughly complex action story.

I am left feeling that this was certainly good enough.  The art was competent and told the story well.  The writing was good, and it made me think.   While I can’t say the  story made me a great fan, and left me wanting more, I can say that I felt satisfied by the reading, and that is a good feeling.


Publisher: Zenescope
Writer: Jeffrey Kaufman
Art: Marco Turini

We all know about secret agents, spies and assassins.  Whoever they work for, MI-6, CIA, or U.N.C.L.E., the need for action is always there, and the heroic Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, or James Bond will come to the fore, be heroic and fulfill the job requirement.

The twist here is that Jacob Mars is a CIA agent and assassin who loses that kind of job.   He is a man who has grown accustomed to the life of a spy, with women, and money, and action.   So he is forced to become a freelancer.   However one might perceive the title of the graphic novel to be in regards to any of the women we see, if by glimpse instead of a full character, the whore is Jacob Mars.   As such his actions, of killing, screwing, screwing for payment, killing, scre... oh sorry, ...  are one of a male whore.  

I don’t think the character Jacob Mars will be anyone’s favorite, he has none of the class of the previously mentioned characters, nor do we see him in his best light.   We are privy to the life of a male whore, and it isn’t a pretty picture to view.

So now you are likely thinking, well, is it good?   I guess it has something to do with your tolerance for the subject.   I don’t think many people watching a porno would want or be interested in a discussion of Intelligent Design versus Evolution.  This isn't a story about a noble hero, or gallant knight rushing to the rescue of anyone.   I’d suggest that what is going on here is a story about a person we aren’t able to like, and some people aren’t able to enjoy that.  

OK so, what if you like Anti-Hero characters?   Well then you might like this.   It isn’t something I liked, but I could see the humor, being sexist and kind of nasty working for people.  I could see the sexy scenes (not sex scenes as it would be a borderline R/PG-13) being arousing to someone, if they were looking for that.

But while I think that it is a matter of taste which will likely guide you, there are other things to consider.   The art wasn’t at all bad but at the same time it looked quite a bit like hot babes without emotions with a guy who is gruff and mean with no other emotions.   The technical skill seems there, without fulfilling the story's need for such emotions.   The writing is good enough I think for an action movie with somewhat hot chicks.   So if you are interested in a B movie, with a naughty subtext and sleazy story about a male whore, catch this book.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The End? Of the World as we know it?

And I feel fine.


Are utzijoxik wa‘e
k‘a katz‘ininoq,
k‘a kachamamoq,
k‘a kasilanik,
k‘a kalolinik,
katolona puch upa kaj.

Yes we wait. When Kukulkan returns, the serpent reaches the earth, the days will end, and the world begin anew.

Uh yeah.

So I am supposed to worry about the end of the world, according to some people who have read ancient books and calendars and found that the Mayan calendar ends December 21, 2012.

Well let me tell you something.  I don't care.   Nope.  My mom died this year.  My car was lost in an accident.  People went through hurricane Sandy.   People in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq and Israel and Gaza and Libya and shit.... everywhere have seen horrible things.   If the earth is to come to an end I say bravo, bring it on.

First I might find Ancient Aliens on History channel to be well done, and interesting, but I don't actually buy it.

This isn't to say some of it couldn't be true, or that it isn't my thing.   I just think that while there is much we don't know, and much that we know that is likely wrong, filling in the blanks doesn't actually get you very far either.

However Erich von Daniken for me was the best of the writers of the stuff... whatever you wish to think about it, or him.

We've been entertained by the Mayan culture otherwise too.

In movies with Apocalyptico

In comics by Jack Kirby, the ancient astronauts and aliens are looked at.

The comics medium looks at the end of the world too

So if it is the end, bravo.
If it isn't the end, oh well.

Find something to read, or watch, or listen to, and enjoy.



~ App Debuts at Number 4 in the App Store Charts for iPhone Free Book Apps ~

NEW YORK, NY— December 20, 2012  – Just in time for the holiday season, Liquid Comics launched the new “Liquid Comics” app today for the iPhone and iPad. The app quicklyliquid rose to number 4 in the App Store charts under iPhone free book apps. The app is available now for download at: 

The app is loaded with free comics and videos from leading creators from both comics and Hollywood including Guy Ritchie, John Woo, Barry Sonnenfeld, Shekhar Kapur, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Andy Diggle, Marc Guggenheim, Mukesh Singh, Jeevan J. Kang and more.

The app will also be the first place to receive updates on new projects coming soon from Liquid, including “Coming of Rageby legendary creator Wes Craven (Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street) and horror scribe, Steve Niles (30 Days of Night).
Liquid Comics aims to be a home for great creators across film, television and comics to collaborate together on new ideas and bring them to audiences through the visual medium of graphic novels and interactive entertainment,” commented Sharad Devarajan, Liquid Comics Co-Founder & CEO. “The Liquid Comics app for the iPhone and iPad allows us to share these creators stories with potentially millions of people through one of the most compelling visual devices ever created.”
The app is a free application that is loaded with free content and additional content that can be purchased when users sign up for an account. Current comic books offered in the Liquid app include: 

John Woo’s “7 Brothers,” - from John Woo (Mission Impossible 2, Face-Off) and comic book creators, Garth Ennis and Jeevan Kang. Seven Brothers tells the story of how six hundred years ago mighty Chinese treasure fleets set sail to reach every continent. Now in modern day Los Angeles, an ancient prophecy must be fulfilled and seven men with nothing in common but their destinies must face the Son of Hell to save the world. 

Barry Sonnenfeld's “Dinosaurs vs. Aliens” - from by Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black trilogy), and comic book creators, Grant Morrison and Mukesh Singh.  The story for Dinosaurs Vs. Aliens is based on a secret world war battle that was never recorded in our history books. When an alien invasion attacks Earth in the age of the dinosaurs, our planet’s only saviors are the savage prehistoric beasts which are much more intelligent than humanity has ever imagined. 

Guy Ritchie's “Gamekeeper- from Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock, Stock,…) and comic book creators, Andy Diggle and Mukesh Singh. Gamekeeper is a tale of epic espionage.  Brock is a reclusive, enigmatic, groundsman who lives a quiet existence, until mercenaries invade it and destroy any remnants of his life he has left.  Now, set on a path of vengeance, it becomes difficult to tell who has more power, the man, or the animal within.
Shekhar Kapur’s “Snakewoman, created by Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth, Four Feathers) and comic book creators Zeb Wells and Michael Gaydos. Jessica Peterson is learning first-hand that the cycle of revenge cannot be broken. Without understanding why, she finds herself turning into a creature - a vicious Snakewoman. Her mission - to avenge a centuries old wrong that was conceived half a world away. Jessica must confront the monster that lurks inside her before it is too late.

Marc Guggenheim’s “Nowhere Man, created by Marc Guggenheim (Executive Producer of the hit television series, “Arrow”), What if you could have the world of your dreams...and all it cost you was every thought you ever had. A futuristic thriller set in a world where the government monitors everything - including your most private thoughts.
New releases in the app will include previously published Liquid titles such as “The Megasfrom Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3; Surrogates); “Dead Soldierfrom filmmakers John Moore (A Good Day to Die Hard; Max Payne); “Voodoo Childby Weston Cage, Nicolas Cage and Mike Carey; “Dock Walloperby actor and filmmaker, Ed Burns and Jimmy Palmiotti.

The app is available now for download at: 

For more information please contact:
Liquid Comics is a digital entertainment company focused on creating cinematic and mythic graphic novel stories with filmmakers, creators and storytellers. The company was founded by entrepreneurs, Sharad Devarajan, Gotham Chopra and Suresh Seetharaman and uses the medium of digital graphic novel publishing to develop properties for theatrical live-action films, animation and video games. Liquid has created and is creating original graphic novels with acclaimed filmmakers and talents including John Woo, Guy Ritchie, Grant Morrison, Shekhar Kapur, Deepak Chopra, Dave Stewart, Marc Guggenheim, Marcus Nispel, Jonathan Mostow, Edward Burns, Nicolas Cage, John Moore, Wes Craven, Barry Sonnenfeld and others. The Company currently has a number of film and television projects in development based on their properties.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Yar! Look Kids! Comics about Pirates!

I get asked a lot by people who think that the world of comics is all super heroes...  What might they read that isn't spandex and super powers but still adventure?

They seem surprised when I suggest they check out comics about pirates. Admittedly some are from the past, but still you can find them in the back issue bins, and comic book conventions and of course ebay.

Not every comic is for every reader, not every comic is for all ages.   I am not recommending these for every reader, I am just suggesting that you might enjoy them if you are interested in pirates.

(Some images are shrunk to fit the column and writing, please click on each image to see the covers in all of their glory)

Rawbone by comic writer Jamie Delano (from publisher Avatar) is probably my favorite of those I will briefly mention here, although it is likely to be far too dark and deviant for some.   It involves lesbian lovers, beasts from the sea, and bestial violence and lust that only a wicked mind like Delano's could provide.  Artist Max Fiumara does a considerably good job bringing Jamie's madness to life.   Please heed the warning, this is not for kids or people who are sensitive to vulgar and violent stories.  On the other hand if you dig those things, there it is.

Dead Men Tell No Tales from Arcana was a bit of a harsh ride.  The art is not consistent, and the story jumps around a bit, but it is dark, and delicious in ways pirates should be.   While uneven in quality, I liked it.   The writing by Dwight MacPherson combined with the Ben Templesmith cover art makes the book more than ok.

El Cazador from CrossGen was a fine adventure tale of a woman pirate captain and a very rough crew.    Chuck Dixon wrote this as an action tale, and Steve Epting's art was brilliant.   This was a most excellent book, with quality work all around.   Sadly the story didn't run to completion, but who knows, maybe no one's story runs to a complete finite end.

In the age of comics between the Golden age and the revival of the super heroes in the Silver age wild adventures and dark fantasies were offered in comic story by EC.   Long since gone, the EC comics presented here PIRACY were then reprinted by Gemstone recently.  The back issues of either run are possibly found in the places mentioned above, but expect the EC comics to be quite pricey.   The Piracy comics weren't as pretty as say El Cazador, or well written as Rawbone, but they were young, wild and full of energy.  Despite being accused of being too violent for children and such, these are mostly still PG at worst.

What happens when a pirate crew are infected with vampirism?   They turn the oceans into a Sea of Red.   Rick Remender, Keiron Dwyer, Salgood Sam and Paul Harmon take this hybrid creation from the past to the near present, and follow the lives and wild reaches of a crew who were dead but didn't know to die.  I am a fan of this work, but am kind of reluctant to compare it to the other stories, it is just not straight forward enough as a pirate tale to be measured as such.   Instead I like it for the dark, bloody fantasy it presents.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft Part 6: At the Mountains of Madness (conclusion)

Last week we began a look at one of H.P. Lovecraft's most ambitious works: his short novel At the Mountains of Madness. Professor Dyer, a geologist from Miskatonic University and the narrator of the story, is leading an expedition to the Antarctic continent. The party's chief biologist, Professor Lake, has taken part of the group on a side-trip to a hitherto unexplored region and discovered a mountain range higher than any on earth. They have also found several specimens of strange plant-like creatures with starfish-shaped heads. A severe storm cuts off Lake's party from radio contact with the rest of the expedition, and when Dyer comes to investigate, he finds the entire party wiped out.

In examining the wreckage and the dead, Dyer's party find that some of the dead bodies have not just been injured by flying wreckage or frozen by exposure; they've been sliced open. Lovecraft does not use the word dissected, but that is evidently what has happened. They also find that the six damaged specimens have been buried in the snow underneath star-shaped mounds, like the soapstone pieces, and a lot of strange triangular footprints in the snow. The eight intact specimens of the star-headed creatures, are missing; so are three of the sleds, one of the sled dogs, and an odd assortment of supplies. Gedney, one of Lake's party, is also missing. The inference is inescapable. Lake's party must have gone mad.

Right? Isn't that what you were thinking? No? Maybe you've watched too many monster movies.

Dyer decides to attempt a flight across the mountain range. Because the range is so high, he will be unable to take the plane fully-loaded, so he brings only Danforth, one of the expedition's unpaid interns, with him to pilot the plane and what equipment they think absolutely necessary. As they approach the mountains, like Lake's survey before them, Dyer notes the peculiar outcroppings of rock on some of the mountain slopes. Dyer, the geologist, is reminded of the "Giant's Causeway", a natural rock formation in Ireland, but also of the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Higher up, they encounter a misty haze, which Lake had earlier mistakenly guessed was smoke from volcanic activity.

Threading their way through the impossibly high mountains, they navigate the lowest pass they can find, and on the other side of the mountains they find something truly startling: A vast ruined city, stretching across a wide plateau. Dyer realizes that this is the same city they saw in the mirage which appeared when they first approached the mountains. The image of the city had been reflected off a layer of ice particles in the upper atmosphere; a common enough phenomenon in the polar regions. Flying over the city, Dyer is struck by the recurring star-shaped motif in the buildings and plazas of the labyrinthine city.

They land their plane and begin exploring some of the buildings. They find several chambers with elaborate carvings and from these carvings they are able to piece together a history of the city's inhabitants. The carvings confirm what the reader has already guessed; that the city was built by the strange star-headed creatures whom Lake had dubbed the "Elder Ones" after creatures mentioned in the Necronomicon.

This part I find to stretch my willing suspension of disbelief a bit, that they could reconstruct a detailed history of the Old Ones after studying some decorative art for a few hours; but Danforth has read the Necronomicon from cover to cover and the images they find confirm the stories in that tome. Everyone who goes to Miskatonic University seems to have some sort of familiarity with the Necronomicon; I suspect that they make fraternity pledges read a page as part of their initiation hazing.

The Old Ones began building this city eons ago, when life as we know it was just beginning to crawl out of the slime. In fact, earlier Lake had suggested the possibility that the Old Ones had actually created life on Earth as "a jest or a mistake." For hundreds of millions of years, they ruled the planet as geological ages passed and the continents shifted. Lovecraft cites Wegner's Continental Drift Hypothesis, which at the time was regarded as highly speculative. The Old Ones built most of their cities underwater, with the aid of artificial creations called Shuggoths: amorphous blobs capable of changing form to whatever shape was necessary and of obeying the Old Ones' hypnotic commands; but built other colonies on land, such as the ancient city in the Antarctic mountains.

Over the Strange Eons, the Old Ones found their dominion of the earth challenged by other beings from Other Worlds; the Mi-Go, the Spawn of Cthulhu and the Fungi from Yuggoth. Here Lovecraft is tying the star-headed Old Ones to other Cosmic Horrors from previous tales, as August Derleth later did with his "Cthulhu Mythos." But as S.T. Joshi points out, he is also de-mythologizing the Mythos. Where previous stories called these Cosmic Entities "Elder Gods", this one makes clear that these are aliens mistakenly worshiped as gods by our primitive ancestors. One gets the impression that Lovecraft was a little embarrassed by the 'men of science' chanting spells of exorcism in "The Dunwich Horror". There is no magic in "At the Mountains of Madness".

The Mi-Go retreated to the peaks of the Himalayas; the Fungi from Yuggoth flew back to Pluto and Great Cthulhu's domains sank beneath the waves. The Old Ones remained, although diminished in power. They had lost their ability to fly through space on their membranous wings; their art showed a decline in sophistication. They had to put down an uprising by their Shuggoth slaves, who had evolved enough intelligence to revolt. As the continents shifted and the climate began to change, the now-decadent Old Ones built a new city near the old near the great abyss where they had first colonized the Earth. Eventually, the land became so cold, they had to abandon the old city completely. Something else also happened; something so terrible, that the carvings only hinted at it; someting terrible and deadly which the artists of that long-dead city refused to portray.

In this history of the Decline and Fall of the Star-Head Empire, I suspect Lovecraft is writing a parable about the America he knew. Certainly in his view American culture and the arts had degenerated since the 19th Century. More suggestive still are the Suggoths, an underclass which performed all the heavy labor for the Old Ones and who eventually rebelled. The theme of Working Class rising up to bring down Society was a common one in the early 20th Century. Lovecraft had a strong streak of xenophobia in him. Although the influence of his circle of friends in the Wide World outside of Providence helped soften his views, his sojourn in New York as a penniless writer competing for jobs with a flood of immigrant workers to a certain extent reinforced his prejudices.

Dyer and Danforth decide to continue their exploration of the City to the Abyss, shown in the carvings, where the later City of the Old Ones was built. The idea of a kind of Abyss near the Pole is another one that goes back to the 19th Century. In the early 1800s, a US Army captain named John Cleves Symmes, Jr. proposed a theory that the Earth was hollow, and contained several concentric shells which could be reached by large holes at the North and South Poles. He lectured widely on his theory and unsuccesfully lobbied President Andrew Jackson to send an expedition to the polar regions to find it. Edgar Allan Poe's story "MS. Found in a Bottle" ends with its protagonist sucked down into such a polar abyss, and Poe used some of Symmes' theories in his novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which Lovecraft alludes to in "Mountains of Madness".

Making their way through the labyrinthine passageways under the City, Dyer and Danforth encounter some of the weirder creatures to ever appear in a Lovecraft story, and these are completely mundane: flocks of six-foot tall albino penguins. Living as they do underground, they have evolved to be sightless as well as flightless and have no eyes. Although he does not explicitly say so, I suspect these are meant to evoke the mysterious white shrouded figure which appears at the end of Arthur Gordon Pym. The penguins are harmless, but majorly creepy.

Creepier still is what the two find next: the tracks of the sleds missing from the Parks camp, and the lingering odor that the specimens had. Following the tracks they find the sleds themselves and a kind of camp. And in the sleds they find Gedney and the missing sled dog; both dead, but both carefully wrapped up, just like specimens.

Lovecraft has been coy about directly stating what really happened at Lake's camp, but by now it's pretty clear. The star-headed specimens Lake found were not really dead; or at least not all of them were. Under the warmth of the Antarctic sun, they revived. The dogs, maddened by their unnatural scent, attacked the creatures and lead to the horrific slaughter of the camp. After which, the creatures collected specimens of their own and gear from the camp and proceeded to the City themselves. Dyer guesses that these specimens came from an earlier era, and so the City as it is now will be almost as strange to them as it is to its human explorers. He and Danforth find, in this rude camp, sketchbooks taken from Lake's camp which the Old Ones have added drawings of their own in a peculiar style reminiscent of the carvings Dyer has seen.

Following the trail of the Old Ones through the darkness, the unpleasant smell becomes mingled with another odor, even more vile. Then they come across the bodies of four Old Ones, their starfish heads brutally decapitated and covered with slime.
They had not been even savages -- for what indeed had they done? That awful awakening in the cold of an unknown epoch -- perhaps an attack by the furry, frantically barking quadrupeds, and a dazed defense against them and the equally frantic white simians with the queer wrappings and paraphernalia ... poor Lake, poor Gedney ... and poor Old Ones! Scientists to the last -- what had they done that we would not have done in their place? ... Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star-spawn -- whatever they had been, they were men!
Lovecraft has written disparagingly in letters about science fiction writers who give their aliens human attitudes and motivations; but here he succeeds in making grotesques abominations sympathetic as his narrator slowly comes to recognize the same attitudes and motivations he has.When they first find the bodies, Danforth gives an involuntary scream. Now, as they examine them, Dyer and Danforth hear an answering noise in the blackness beyond, a piping noise, sounding something like "Tekeli-li!" the cry of the gigantic bird-creatures from Poe's Arthur Gordon Pym. Dyer guesses that it's one of the group of Old Ones who has murdered its companions. He and Danforth begin to run.

They dash headlong in a blind panic, retracing their path. Coming to the large chamber where they encountered the penguins, they are fortunate in that the mists of the cavern and the large flock confuse their pursuer and it continues down the wrong corridor. But the two men look back and see that Dyer had been wrong. Their pursuer had not been a starfish-headed Old One, but a huge amoeba-like creature, with a multitude of eyes floating on it's formless body. It was a Shuggoth, one of the former slaves of the Old Ones, which had once again revolted against its masters -- this time successfully. The Old Ones were now all truly dead, and only their mindless slaves dwelt in their haunted city.

The two men proceed to the surface. Danforth is near hysterical, babbling the names of the Boston subway train stations as they dash through the tunnels. When they get back to their plane, Dyer takes the controls. Danforth is the more skillful pilot, but his nerves are too shot to fly.

Guiding their way back through the high mountain pass, Dyer is too busy concentrating to look back behind them as Danforth does, and so he does not see what Danforth sees.

What does Danforth see? A bigger, even more terrifying Shuggoth? The mysterious black sphinx Poe wrote of in Arthur Gordon Pym? A mirage like the one they saw before, only this time showing what lies beyond the City? The Abyss of the Old Ones itself?

Those are some of my guesses. Dyer has his own, but will not speak of them. Danforth will not speak of it at all, except in delirium.
He has on rare occasions whispered disjointed and irresponsible things about "the black pit", "the cavern rim", "the proto-shoggoths:, "the windowless solids with five dimensions", "the nameless cylinders" "the elder pharos", "Yog-Sothogh", "the primal white jelly", "the colour our of space", "the wings"...
But when he actually saw it... whatever it was he saw... he only shrieked one word, over and over:"Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!"

Thursday, November 29, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft part 5: At the Mountains of Madness (part 1)

For the past few weeks I've been perusing some of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, as selected by Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi in his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. This week we continue our sampling of Cosmic Horror with one of Lovecraft's few novels and perhaps his most ambitious work: At the Mountains of Madness.

H.P. Lovecraft had a life-long interest in the Antarctic regions, going all the way back to when he was twelve and wrote treatises on the early explorers. Perhaps his strange sensitivity to cold which made him unable to bear temperatures lower than 20 degrees gave him a morbid fascination with the polar regions. More likely is the fact that by the early 20th Century, Antarctica was one of the few remaining unexplored regions on the globe; a blank spot on the map which the imaginative writer could populate with his own creations.

One of Lovecraft's role models, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym involving a voyage to the South Polar seas, which Lovecraft references in At the Mountains of Madness. Lovecraft closely followed news accounts of the real-life Antarctic voyages: Shackleton's failed attempt at the South Pole which ended in triumph, and Scott's successful one which ended in tragedy; and more recently, Byrd's airplane flight over the Pole. Mountains of Madness incorporates elements from all of these and more.

The narrator is unnamed, as is frequently the case in Lovecraft's stories. I have to wonder if this is an aspect of Lovecraft's theme that man is an inconsequential speck in the cosmos; that the character's exposure to Cosmic Horrors has not only threatened his sanity, but somehow diminished his sense of identity. In a later story, however, the character is identified as Professor William Dyer.

Dyer is a geology professor at Miskatonic University and leads an expedition sponsored by his school to the Antarctic. But he begins his narrative by telling us that he relates his tale only with the greatest reluctance. He and his colleagues, the ones who survived, all agreed to supress the complete facts of the expedition; and Dyer has only broken this silence to prevent a new expedition from inadvertently stumbling into the horrors they found and releasing... ah, but that comes later.

The chief mission of the expedition is to collect mineral and fossil samples from the Antarctic Continent, using a revolutionary drilling apparatus devised by Professor Pabodie, the team's engineer. Lovecraft describes the progress of the expedition in detail, and for a while all goes well. The drill works perfectly, and Pabodie has devised a melting system to get down to the base rock in places where it is covered in ice. (The idea that core samples of the ice might be valuable as well does not seem to have occurred to Lovecraft, although perhaps it just lies outside the interest of Dryer the geologist).

Lake, the chief biologist with the team, becomes excited by unusual triangular striated markings in in a layer of slate, which he believes to be the fossilized prints of an unknown creature. It was known in Lovecraft's time that Antarctica once had a tropical climate rich with plant and animal life. Shackelton had discovered seams of coal there during his expedition. But the unusual striations are found in a pre-Cambrian layer of rock dating back to a time when there were few known life-forms of any complexity.

Lake persuades Dyer to let him take the four planes and some of the men and equipment to a previously unexplored region of the continent, hoping to find more samples of Archean slate with these fossil imprints. Dyer and the rest of the team remain behind at their current base to prepare for their next move. And so Dyer does not actually witness Lake's discoveries. Like the men of Dunwich watching Sentinel Hill through a spyglass in "The Dunwich Horror", we get what happens next second-hand.

The initial radio reports from Lake are exciting. His team have discovered an unknown range of mountains even higher than the Himalayas; so high that their tops have been swept clean by the high Antarctic winds and are completely devoid of snow. The upper slopes of these peaks bear peculiar clusters of box-like formations which Lake initially attributes to weathering and erosion. Bad weather forces one of Lake's planes down on a plateau in the mountains' foothills, and so he establishes a camp there.

Although the rock formations of the plateau are a comparatively recent sandstone and not the ancient slate he was hoping for, Lake sets up the drilling equipment. That is, after all, what they're there for. The apparatus breaks into a wide cave in a layer of limestone, stretching out in all directions. The cavern contains a treasure trove of fossils, evidently plants and animals washed into the cavern at some point in the Pleistocene Era. Among the fossils, Lake's team finds more of the strange triangular tracks they had found in the Archean slate 600 million years older. They find something even more peculiar: several pieces of green soapstone, roughly star-shaped, each with a series of tiny dots in a regular pattern.

Then they find the Thing.

At first it seems to be a large fossilized plant, barrel-shaped and about six feet in length, with five ridges spaced out around its circumference. It has wing-like membrane apendeges. The specimen is not stone, as a true fossil would be, but it seems that the tough, leathery stuff of its form has somehow been preserved. They find more specimens that are more complete and find that they seem to have groups of flexible arms on each body ridge and a starfish-shaped head on the body's top. In one of his radio dispatches, Lake says:
"Complete specimens have such uncanny resemblance to certain creatures of primal myth that suggestion of ancient existence outside antarctic becomes inevitable. Dyer and Pabodie have read Necronomicon and seen Clark Ashton Smith's nightmare paintings based on text, and will understand when I speak of Elder Things supposed to have created all earth-life as a jest or mistake."
Clark Ashton Smith was one of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents, who was a poet and and artist as well as a writer. Lovecraft's suggestion that life on earth -- including human life -- was an accident rather than the result of Intelligent Design -- or worse yet, a practical joke by the gods, fits in again with his theme of Man's Insignificance.

Lake finds a total of fourteen of these "Elder Ones" as he calls them and hauls them back to his camp. This is difficult, because the dogs they brought along to haul the sleds on overland trips detest the smell of them and become highly agitated in their presence; much as the dogs of Dunwich hated Wilbur Whateley. He notes that the flesh of these creatures seems to be softening somewhat under the rays of the antarctic sun, and resolves to study them.

That is Lake's last radio message. A storm comes down off the mountain with tremendous winds which cut off all contact. When the storm ends, Dyer is unable to raise Lake's party. Since each of the airplanes Lake took had a wireless, it seems impossible that all the radios should be irreparably damaged. So what happened?

Dyer has the expedition's fifth plane brought to his camp from the expedition's initial base on Ross Island, and takes the rest of his team to find out what happened. The flight is a long and a trying one, but eventually they reach sight of the impossibly high mountains. As they approach, they see a bizarre mirage over the mountains of a weird Cyclopean city.

Lake's camp, when they arrive, is a shambles; apparently wiped out by the windstorm. The tents and the ice shelters Lake's men tried to build have been wrecked; the drilling equipment smashed. Eleven of the twelve men in Lake's party are dead, and one man, named Gedney, is missing. Dyer says little more about what they found at this point, other than to say that the next day he and Danforth, one of the graduate students with the expedition, took the plane into the mountains to explore further; and that after returning from that trip Danforth was close to a nervous breakdown and all the men of the expedition agreed to keep silent about it all.

NEXT WEEK: What did Danforth see, or thought he saw, that brought him to the brink of madness? What did he and Dyer find on the other side of those dark and gigantic peaks? And what ever happened to Gedney? Next time we cross over into an incredibly ancient world to discover the secrets of The Mountains of Madness! Tekeli-li!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Description: CEX 2013_Logo Low Res.png

Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo 2013 Gets Weird

What:               Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo returns April 26-28, 2013 at the BMO Centre. Coming off a record-breaking attendance of over 60,000 in 2012, Calgary Expo is taking full-frontal nerdity to the next level in 2013. Featuring guests from comic creator legend Stan Lee to Chris Sarandon, best known for his evil-plotting in 80¹s classic The Princess Bride. Following the first-ever reunion in over two decades of the principal cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Calgary Expo presents another exclusive event for pop culture aficionados in 2013. "Weird Al" Yankovic ­ the biggest selling comedy recording artist of all time ­ is appearing at a comic-con for the first time ever. His Alpocalypse Tour concert Friday night is a second dose of fandom for those who cannot get enough during regular expo hours.
Special Guests Include:
·       STAN LEE (Spiderman, X-Men, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Avengers)
·       WEIRD AL YANKOVIC (Comedy Recording Artist)
·       LEXA DOIG (Andromeda; Sonya Valentine in Continuum)
·       BRET ³HITMAN² HART (WWE Wrestling Legend)
·       NEAL ADAMS (DC Artist: Superman, Batman, Green Arrow)
·       MICHAEL SHANKS (Saving Hope; Dr. Daniel Jackson in Stargate: SG-1)
·       JOHN CARPENTER (Horror Writer & Director Halloween, Escape from NewYork)
·       CHRIS SARANDON (Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, Jack Skellington voice in The Nightmare Before Christmas)

Where:             BMO Centre, Stampede Park, 20 Roundup Way SE, Calgary, AB

When:              Friday, April 26, 2013 - Sunday, April 28, 2013
12pm to 8pm Friday, 10am to 7pm Saturday, 10am to 5pm Sunday
Tickets on Sale: Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 10am MST
Weird Al Concert Tickets on Sale at Ticketmaster:  Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 12pm MST

Thursday, November 22, 2012

H.P. Lovecraft Part 4: The Dunwich Horror

We've been looking at a few of the stories of horror master H.P. Lovecraft, as selected by S.T. Joshi for his collection The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. Previously we listened to the scrabblings of "The Rats in the Walls" and squinted "The Colour Out of Space". This week we once again visit the more eldrich corners of backwood New England to experience 'The Dunwich Horror.'

There's a saying that to an Englishman, a hundred miles is a long way; and to an American, a hundred years is a long time. We've seen Lovecraft play with this type of scale in "The Rats in the Walls", where he set his story of generational evil stretching back to prehistoric times in England, whose rich, layered history has room to accommodate such a span; and in "Colour Out of Space", where the narrator assumed that the dark rumors about "the strange days" come from ancient legend and is surprised to learn that they occurred within living memory.

Perhaps one of the reasons Lovecraft set so many of his stories in his beloved New England was because as one of the oldest colonial settlements in America, it possesses a sense of depth to its history that, say, Ohio or even New York lack. The ancestors of the Whateley family in the story originally left the town of Salem in 1692 Readers don't have to know that was the year of the Salem Witch Trials to make the association. Lovecraft goes back even further, mentioning circles of standing stones which crown some of the hills in the area, evoking an atmosphere of prehistoric, or at least pre-European times. (Although a curious comment in the text suggests that the stones on Sentinel Hill overlooking the village of Dunwich could be of "caucasian" origin. Does he mean the early white settlers? Or an unknown group of pre-historic white men predating the local Indian tribes? Characteristicly, Lovecraft does not elaborate.)

Lovecraft begins his story, like many of his others, by establishing the atmosphere of the setting. This is something he does quite well. Although he gets some justified mockery for his over-use of shambling, amorphous  non-euclidiean adjectives, he usually saves them for later, when the actual horror begins to encroach. He is quite capable of establishing a tone of quiet menace without them. I think he learned this from Poe, who said that every sentence in a short story ought to go to creating a single mood and that this should be established at the very beginning.

He describes the tiny village of Dunwich, in north central Massachusetts. You could describe it as a Town that Time Forgot That the Decades Cannot Improve... only not in a pleasant, Lake Wobegon-ish way. It was settled, as mentioned, by families fleeing from the Salem Witch Trials; some of whom brought with them the dark practices the Salem Puritans feared. In isolation, many of these families have become inbred and degenerate.

Two of Lovecraft's favorite horror themes, which no doubt come from his upper-class New England upbringing, are inbreeding and miscegenation, both of which invariably lead to degeneration. This is perhaps most obvious in "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" but we get it here too in the family of Wilbur Whateley, a clan of New England rednecks, despised and a little feared by their more respectable neighbors. (Throughout the story, Lovecraft differentiates between the the decadent Whateley's and the comparatively undecayed branch of the family.)

Old Man Whateley has a reputation as a wizard, and his old farmhouse holds a large collection of old books inherited from his heretical forebears. A widower, he lives alone on his farm except for his daughter Lavinia. She is described as an albino with crinkly hair and has some other undescribed deformity, the nature of which Lovecraft leaves to the imagination.

One night Lavinia has a son. Who was the father? The neighbors have their theories, and Lovecraft is too much the gentleman to voice what those rumors are. Old Whateley, however, says "Ye needn't think the only folks is the folks hereabaouts."
"I calc'late her man is as good a husban' as ye kin find this side of Aylesbury; an ef ye knowed as much abaout the hills as I dew, ye wouldn't akt no better church weddin' nor her'n. Let me tell ye suthin; -- some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!"
The child, Wilbur, is dark, as opposed to his albino mother, and has a goatish look to him. He is born on Candlemas, an obscure feast day of the Christian Church which corresponds to one of the four important celebrations of the Witch's Sabbath, (and which has been reclaimed as a celebration by modern Wiccans). Throughout the story are other mentions of Christian feast days with pagan connotations.

Lavinnia is proud of her ugly son and mutters about the great powers he will have and his tremendous future. The boy does seem exceptional. He grows at a remarkable rate and is able to walk and to speak at an early age. His mother takes him with her to the bonfires she lights at the stone table and megaliths atop Sentinel Hill on Hallowe'en and other significant holidays. She keeps him buttoned up in clothing which covers almost his entire body. Dogs and other animals seem to instinctively dislike him.

The Whateley's have little to do with the rest of the community. The only contact they have is to buy livestock. After Wilbur's birth, Old Whateley begins buying cattle from his neighbors, and paying in gold -- very old gold coins. Oddly enough, the size of Whateley's herd never seems to increase much; and his livestock always seems thin and sickly, bearing strange wounds on their necks.

Old Whateley also begins renovating parts of his farm. He starts with one of the old sheds, which he repairs with fresh clapboards and a new lock. Then he begins working on the unused upper floor of his farmhouse. He guts the floor, pulling out all the walls and partitions and boarding up the windows, and eventually removing even the ceiling so that the story is open to the attic. Visitors to his farm notice that a vile odor comes from the shed. They also hear noises of something large walking around in the upstairs part of the farmhouse. Wilbur's room, like that of his mother and grandfather, is on the ground floor.

Whateley teaches his grandson to read from the many ancient, arcane and blasphemous tomes that have come down through the family. "He'd orter hev 'em as well sot as he kin, tho they're goin' to be all of his larnin'."

By the time Wilbur is four years old, he looks like he's fifteen; he's growing fuzz on his face and his voice is beginning to break. He carries a gun with him when he goes into town to protect himself from the dogs, who become violently agitated by his presence.

He is about eleven years old, and by all appearance a fully grown man, when his grandfather dies. The doctor from the nearest large town is summoned, but can do nothing to save him. The whippoorwills are gathering outside the house and raising a tremendous racket. It is believed in that area that whippoorwills come for the souls of the dead and dying -- "psychopomps" is the word Lovecraft uses -- and Old Whateley is sure that they are coming for him. Old Whateley has some last words for his grandson.
"More space, Willy, more space soon. Yew grows -- an' that grows faster. It'll be ready to sarve ye soon, boy. Open up the gates to Yog-Sothoth with the long chant tha ye'll find on page 751 of the complete edition, an' then put a match to the prison. Fire from airth can't burn it nohaow."
The doctor doesn't know what to make of this and puts it down to the ravings of a dying man. It makes sense to Wilbur, though.

His mother is starting to become worried about him. The pride she felt at how special he was is becoming overshadowed by fear. He's doing something and she doesn't fully understand what it is. And she cannot speak to anyone about what she does understand. Sometime later, the whippoorwills are heard again around the Whateley farm, and Lavinia is never seen again.

Wilbur moves all his books and belongings into another of the sheds in the farmyard, and then starts gutting the inside of the rest of the farmhouse, carefully boarding up all the windows and doors, just as his grandfather had done previously. He has now grown to about seven feet tall. And about this time he ventures out into the wide world.

He travels to the town of Arkham, to visit the Library of the great Miskatonic University. Well, maybe "great" is an exaggeration; in another story Lovecraft calls it a minor college; but it does have an excellent collection of rare and arcane books of occult lore, including the legendary Necronomicon.

A few words about the Necronomicon. I think August Derleth erred in calling his organizing of Lovecraft's stories the "Cthulhu Mythos." The central unifying element in Lovecraft's foetid oeuvre is not Great Cthulhu, but rather the Necronomicon, that celebrated compendium of dark and eldritch lore, compiled by the Mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred in the 8th Century. The book turns up in several of his stories, often providing helpful information about Elder Gods and/or driving its readers to madness. In the 1970s there were a couple books published with that title, claiming to be the "real" Necronomicon, but they were rather pedestrian hoaxes about your ordinary garden variety of occultism. The True Necronomicon in it's purest state exists only in the ravaged imagination of Abdul Alhazred... whom Lovecraft invented.

Wilbur has his own copy of the Necronomicon, a worn and damaged edition of John Dee's English translation. Dee was an actual historical figure, an occultist who was a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth, and Lovecraft's friend Frank Belknap Long added a connection between Dee and the Necronomicon in one of his own stories. Wilbur wants to compare his own copy to the superior Latin translation in the M.U. Library, particularly the portions corresponding to page 751.

The librarian, Dr. Henry Armitage, dubiously permits Wilbur to look at the book; but he's frankly suspicious of the strange creepy young man who sets the dogs on campus howling. He knows a little bit about Wilbur, having heard about the young prodigy with the interest in the occult and visited him a couple years earlier. He's even more suspicious when he looks over Wilbur's shoulder to see exactly what he's reading: a passage about the Old Ones who dwell in a space other than our own and who someday will rule again when humanity is no more, and about Yog-Sothoth, the guardian of the gate to the Old Ones' dimension. Wilbur asks to borrow the University's Necronomicon, but Armitage refuses.

"Maybe Harvard wun't be so fussy as yew be," Wilbur says as he leaves.

This encounter with the now adult Whateley has confirmed some suspicions lurking in Armitage's mind. He muses on the rumors about Wilbur he heard in Dunwich.
"Inbreeding?" Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. "Great God, what simpletons! Shew then Arthur Machen's Great God Pan and they'll think it a common Dunwich scandal!"
"The Great God Pan" was a story by the English fantasy writer Arthur Machen, one of Lovecraft's influences. The main character in the story is the offspring of a human mother and a non-human creature of great power; much like Wilbur Whateley.

S.T. Joshi calls "The Dunwich Horror" a flawed story, and criticizes Henry Armitage as a as a rather conventional and boring horror story hero. I'm not sure I agree. I don't think Armitage is the hero. Oh yes, he figures out what Wilbur is up to and he is ultimately the one who defeats the Horror, but he isn't the protagonist. Wilbur is. Wilbur Whateley is really the central character and the most interesting character in the story. Despite what happens to him next.

Wilbur doesn't get Harvard's copy of the Necronomicon either. Armitage has written ahead to warn them. He's beginning to get desperate. He needs that book; but he also needs to get back to his farmhouse. He left Something back there which needs looking after.

A couple weeks later, Armitage is awoken by the campus watchdog who has caught someone trying to break into the library. Then the dog's growls are accompanied by an inhuman scream... and a chorus of whippoorwills. The dying body Armitage and his colleagues find on the floor of one of the library's reading rooms in a puddle of greenish-yellow ichor is unmistakably Wilbur Whateley. It is also definitely inhuman. Wilbur's head and hands were man-like, if ugly and goatish; but the watchdog has torn away his coat revealing a hideous chimera of a body.

Even more astounding, after his death, much of Wilbur's body simply melts away. Whateley was the union of a human and a creature from another universe whose physical laws are different from our own. Just like the meteorite in "Colour Out of Space", his physical mass was incompatible with our universe and could not remain long without something holding it here.

Wilbur's business in Arkham is left unfinished. The something he left behind in the farmhouse will have to fend for itself. The real Horror is about to commence.

A couple weeks later, the folks around Dunwich hear reports of something monstrous and huge lurking in the hills. The hired boy working at a nearby farm comes across footprints as big as barrel-heads of a creature bigger than an elephant but with many, many more legs. Another boy reports that the old Whateley farmhouse has been destroyed. It looks like it has been blown up with dynamite, and foul, dark, sticky substance coats the wreckage.

The locals come to the obvious conclusion. Wizard Whateley "must a raised sunthin; in that there nailed-up haouse as ain't even so human as he was." But the authorities in the nearby town do not take these reports seriously, and the local newspaper prints a humorous paragraph about the "record-breaking monster the bootleg whiskey of Dunwich had raised up."

The people around Dunwich see nothing funny about it. Something destroys Elmer Frye's barn and kills half their cattle, draining them of blood. The next day tracks are found going up Sentinel Hill, where the Whateley family used to perform their wild rituals.
Thursday night began much like the others, but it ended less happily. The whippoorwills in the glen had screamed with such unusual persistence that many could not sleep and about 3 a.m. all the party telephones rand tremulously. Those who took down their receivers heard a fright-mad voice shriek out, "Help, oh, my Gawd!..." and some thought a crashing sound followed the breaking off of the exclamation. There was nothing more.
A group of men go out to the Elmer Frye place the next morning and find the house crushed like an eggshell.
...amongst the ruins nothing living or dead could be discovered. Only a stench and a tarry stickiness. The Elmer Fryes had been erased from Dunwich.
Meanwhile, Henry Armitage has been busy. After Wilbur Whateley's death, the authorities had gone to the shed in his farmyard where he lived. They could not work up the courage to investigate the boarded-up farmhouse with the vile odor emanating from it, but they took away some of Wilbur's books, including one which seemed to be his diary. The diary seemed to be written in some kind of code, apparently based on an ancient language, so it was given to Armitage to decode. For the past several weeks, he's been working on it and has finally cracked it.

From Wilbur's diary, Armitage learns the true purpose for which Old Whateley groomed his unnatural grandson. Wilbur is to open up a portal to another universe and summon the beings there to earth in order to cleanse the earth of all humanity. The creature in the farmhouse was to be Wilbur's servant to achieve this. Wilbur's death in the library has forstalled this horrific plan, but what of the Other?

It is only then that Armitage hears the rumors that have come out of Dunwich and realizes that Whateley's servant is now running loose. Armitage gathers the colleagues who with him witnessed Wilbur's death and are most likely to take him seriously, and together they go to Dunwich.
The end comes where it must: on the top of Sentinel Hill, in the megalithic ruins where Livinia and Wilbur used to hold their bonfires. Armitage and the Men of Science confront the creature, armed with spells from the Necronomicon and spray-guns filled with the powder of Ibn Ghazi.

We do not get a close look at the battle. We remain with the men of Dunwich, observing it from a distance through a spyglass. The creature is invisible, but briefly becomes visible when dosed with the dust from Armitage's spray gun. It's a hideous, many-legged, tentacled creature, but most horrific is the huge half-face taking up much of the top of its body, looking horribly like Old Man Whateley. As the scientists cast their magic spells -- yes, that's what they do -- the creature cries out in agony. And it's indistinct, guttural cries suddenly becomes words in English:
"Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah -- e'yayayayaaa ... ngh'aaaaa ... ngh'aaa ... 'yuh .. h'yuh ... HELP! HELP! ... ff--ff--ff FATHER! FATHER! YOG-SOTHOTH!..."
Lightning strikes the altar-stone on the hill, and an overpowering wave of stench sweeps over the hillside. And the the thing is no more.

The folks in Dunwich then remember what Old Whateley said years ago: some day yew folks'll hear a child o' Lavinny's a-callin' its father's name on the top o' Sentinel Hill!" Armitage confirms this. The Horror which had besieged the communtity for the past several nights was not a fiend from hell summoned by Wilbur.

"...It was his twin brother, but it looked more like the father than he did."

NEXT: We continue our look into the worlds of H.P Lovecraft by venturing into the Antarctic wastes. Do you dare seek what lies "At The Mountains of Madness"?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Everything Is Broken; or: It Takes a Village to Survive an Apocalypse

Everything is Broken, by writer John Shirley is perhaps not exactly a SF novel, but it does fit under the general umbrella of Post-Apocalyptic Fiction. Shirley emerged on the cutting edge of cyberpunk in the 1980s-- William Gibson once called him "cyberpunk’s patient zero, first locus of the virus, certifiably virulent". Since then has written some notable science fiction and horror, as well as political satire and commentary. The Apocalypse of Everything is Broken is a relatively small one: not a nuclear Armageddon or an ecological attack or a zombie invasion; but the catastrophe his characters face is no less frightening.

It's the Tea Party.

Russ Haver is a rootless young man who has been drifting since leaving college. Lacking a purpose in life, or more importantly, an income, he accepts his father's offer to come to Freedom, a small coastal community in Northern California. Russ isn't too thrilled about meeting his Dad, who divorced from his mother many years ago, but he doesn't have many options and he's to the point where an entry-level lawn-care job in a rinky-dink little town looks good.

Freedom is a small town with ambitions of becoming a resort community. It's name used to be Ferry Landing, but the mayor, Lon Ferrara, persuaded the town to change it to better fit his conception of a libertarian utopia.

We meet several of the residents of Freedom. Lon Ferrara, the mayor and a prominent businessman, who has gutted the town's infastructure and emergency services in the name of privatization and small government; His brother Mario, who runs the local tavern and does pretty well, mostly by going along with what his brother says.

Jill Hushbeck, a vocal member of the liberal Old Guard of the community, who used to be editor of the town newspaper before Ferrara bought it out. Brand Robinson, a weary and cynical writer. Pendra, a nice girl who lives with her grandmother next door to Russ's Dad and who becomes friends with Russ.

Then there's Dickie Rockwell, the leader of a local gang; a punk who has visions and who believes he has been touched by destiny to make Freedom his personal domain.

Russ has only been in Freedom for an hour or less when the tsunami hits. There have been reports of earthquake clusters up and down the coast for the past week; now one has triggered a tsunami which strikes the town. Like the Wrath of God smiting the sin of tacky tourist traps, the wave obliterates most of the community.

Russ finds himself with Pendra and with his Dad among the small group of survivors who band together in the aftermath of the destruction. Lacking a fire department or any emergency services, cut off from the rest of the world by the wreckage left by the wave, with no power or fresh water, they they desperately try to hang on until help can arrive.

But other people have other agendas. Lon Ferrara has just seen pretty much his entire business empire wiped out; but he still runs the town and he is not letting FEMA and the Black Helicopters take it away from him. He declines any outside aid and plans to re-make Freedom into his personal fief.
Dickie Rockwell has much the same goals as Ferrara, except he's less subtle about it. He simply loots whatever he wants and kills anybody who gets in his way. Ferrarra recruits Dickie's gang to augment his own personal militia, but it is soon obvious who is really in control.

In one scene where Dickie's gang has broken into the house of an elderly couple and is about to kill them, Rockwell launches into a rant which underscores the theme of the novel: where Ferrara's self-centered anti-government philosophy will lead.
"Oh well, the police!" Dickie said, strolling around the bloody smear. "Now they want the police! Our ol' pal Mayor Ferrara got rid of them! And you know he got rid of anything connected with 'big government,' so that means no one's here helping, which means, guess what -- real freedom in Freedom! You people are free! We're free! You're free to defend your shit and we're free to take your shit! It's like the pioneer days when they crossed a fucking mountain range and found some people living on the other side and they killed them dead and took their shit away! Now we get to do that! We came over the mountain -- so, we can just take your shit! It's the inspiration of history! Breathtakin' as the Grand Canyon! Ain't freedom grand?"
The story isn't entirely Good Liberals vs Evil Libertarians. There's a flakey New Age "life coach" and a middle-aged stoner who fit into the conservative stereotype of the liberal who are useless or worse. Ferrara even talks up "pooling resources" for the greater good, although in his case the greater good is himself. The author has a strong appreciation for the Right to Bear Arms; it's what enables the surviving townsfolk to defend themselves against the Mayor's militia. The hero, Russ, learning how to use and respect a firearm is a big part of his development from a drifting youth to joining the adults.

Thinking about this book reminded me of some of the other post-Apocalyptic stories I've read. It struck me that a lot of them were about community rather than individualism. Which is odd, given that most people who prepare for Armageddon seem to lean the other way. One of the first post-Apoc novels I ever read was Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, set in a small Florida town isolated by a nuclear war. How the people in trapped in the town work together is a major part of the story. In David Brin's novel The Postman, it's stated that what caused the Fall of Civilization was not the limited nuclear exchange, or the ecological disaster or the financial collapse -- the country could have survived all of those -- but rather the survivalists who took advantage of the crises to loot and destroy the remaining props of the social order.

Of course, as soon as this notion came to me, I thought of exceptions. Ayn Rand's Anthem came to mind, which is entirely about the exaltation of the Individual over the Group. And the hero of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold is a square-jawed rugged individualist. On the other hand, Anthem is set many generations after the Fall of Civilization and says nothing about how people initially survived. And although Heinlein is certainly a strong libertarian, he also uses as a recurring theme the individual's responsibility to the community in which he lives.

And perhaps this is a science fiction theme too. Poul Anderson, one of my favorite authors, was like Heinlein a libertarian; but he was also an engineer and I think this latter is why so many of Anderson's stories dealt with fighting against chaos.

In Everything Is Broken, the community is able to defeat the forces of chaos and so will be able to rebuild. Russ, who at the beginning of the crisis can only follow his father's lead, grows in maturity so that he is not only accepted by the "adults" of the community; he is an adult. By the novel's end, he has found a purpose in life. He's going to go back to school to study law enforcement. He wants to do something to contribute to the community.

Monday, November 12, 2012

H.P Lovecraft Part 3: The Colour Out of Space

We're going through a sampling of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose blending of science fiction and horror and a tremendous influence on both genres, selected by S.T. Joshi from his collection The Annotated H.P Lovecraft. Last week we descended into the depths of Exham Priory to discover the ghastly secret of the de la Poer family in "The Rats in the Walls". This week we investigate a horror of a different... (heh heh) ... colour.

"The Colour Out of Space" was one of Lovecraft's favorite stories, and not just because it gave him the opportunity to use the British spelling of "colour" in the title. Lovecraft felt that too many aliens in science fiction stories were simply humans in funny suits, like the "rubber forehead aliens" in some Star Trek episodes. Lovecraft saw no reason why aliens should have either human shapes or human motivations, and he strove to make his Entities From Beyond wholly incomprehensible. In "Colour" he succeeded, probably better than any of his other stories.

I read "The Colour Out of Space" in high school, and it was my first exposure to Lovecraft. I didn't care for it. The story didn't seem to have a plot. A lot of things happened, but the characters mostly observed them. Or were consumed by them. And I found the ending disturbing and unsatisfying, (which is probably the reaction in his readers Lovecraft was going for). Upon re-reading it now, I can appreciate it a little better.

The unnamed Narrator of the story is a surveyor, who has been sent up to the wild hills west of Arkham to survey a new dam. The fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts is perhaps the center of the Lovecraft Universe. It often turns up in Lovecraft's stories, usually in connection with Miskatonic University, located in that town; and Lovecraft sometimes referred to those particular tales as his "Arkham Cycle". Lovecraft loved the weird, wild corners of New England and placed Arkham and the Miskatonic River right in the middle of it.

While surveying the area the new dam will flood, the Narrator finds a strange, grey patch of land; five acres of desolation upon which nothing grows and which the locals call "The blasted heath."
It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire, but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid in the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little to the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it seemed sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim. As I walked hurriedly by I saw the tumbled bricks and stones of an old chimney and cellar on my right, and the yawning black maw of an abandoned well whose stagnant vapours played strange tricks with the hues of the sunlight.
The locals don't talk much about the blasted heath, other than to mutter vaguely about "the strange days". At first the Narrator assumes that this is some old legend of the region, but he learns that the "strange days" occurred within living memory. Old Ammi Pierce knows most about it, but people warn him not to pay attention to Ammi's crazy tales.

So naturally, the Narrator goes to visit Ammi; and after hearing the old man's story, the Narrator decides to return to Boston and resign from the job. He does not wonder that Ammi might be a little cracked or that the local dislike talking about the blasted heath; he doesn't want anything more to do with it either and will be happy when the new reservoir obliterated the cursed spot. He hurries back to town before nightfall; he feels uncomfortable with the thought of being out under the stars of the open sky.

Another writer might have given us Ammi Pierce's story in the man's own words, using the surveyor character only as a framing device. Lovecraft does not. He allows the main narrator to paraphrase Ammi's tale of the strange days. Perhaps Lovecraft just didn't want to write the whole story in dialect, which was a good call on his part; it would have been annoying. Telling the story this way lets the narrator control the foreshadowing and the pacing of how events are revealed. It also allows the narrator to fill in certain technical and scientific details which Ammi would not be able to clearly understand.

The strange days began about fifty years previous, when a meteor landed in the field of Ammi's neighbor, Nahum Gardener. The meteorite caused quite a sensation, and some Professors from Miskatonic University in Arkham came to study it.

The meteorite is quite puzzling; it shrinks in size overnight; it shows no sign of cooling; it's substance is soft and yielding rather than hard and brittle. Most noteworthy, the scientists find a globule inside it of a peculiar color, (sorry, colour), which when struck with a hammer bursts like a bubble, leaving a spherical cavity. The samples taken back to the University for study do not react with any known acids, but do react with the glass containers they are placed in, gradually disintegrating both the beaker and the sample. Most noteworthy, spectroscopic analysis of the samples reveal unknown bands of color, similar to the color of the mysterious globule. Lovecraft describes the analysis in great detail. He had an interest in chemistry in his youth and in spectroscopy in particular, and his description builds the mystery.

A couple days after the meteor lands, a freak thunderstorm comes and the meteorite site is struck repeatedly by lightning. The next day the meteorite is gone. The scientists are disappointed, but they shrug and go back to Arkham.

That autumn, the trees in Nahum's orchard grows a bumper crop of large fruit; but the harvest is disappointing. All the fruit is bitter and uneatable. The same proves to be true of the melons and tomatoes growing near the meteorite site. Nahum guesses that the meteorite has poisoned the soil somehow. His crops upland from the meteorite seem unaffected though. More strange signs appear. During the winter, Nahum notices that the animal tracks he finds in the snow seem peculiar. In the spring, skunk cabbages growing up through the mud have a peculiar colour -- much like the globule -- and emit an odor foul even for skunk cabbage.

Neighbors begin avoiding Nahum's farm, and the Gardeners stop going into town. Soon Ammi is the only neighbor to still visit the Gardener farm. He notices that their water has a bad taste to it and tells Nahum to dig a new well, but Nahum ignores the advice.

Things go from bad to worse. Nahum's wife slowly goes mad and he locks her up in her room. We think of insane family members locked in attics as something out of Jane Eyre, but as late as the 19th Century the state of mental health care was such that there were few better options for treatment, especially for poor rural families. Nahum and his sons go about their routines listlessly, like automatons, and they continue to drink the water. The animals all come sick with a strange malady, their flesh becoming grey and brittle; and all the vegetation on the farm emits a faint glow at night of a peculiar... colour.

One of Nahum's sons falls victim to the same disease as the farm animals. Another goes mad and disappears. What of the third? When Ammi asks of him, Nahum distractedly says that he "lives in the well." Ammi goes upstairs in the farmhouse to try and talk to Nahum's wife. What he finds is horrifying. She too has met the same fate as young Thaddeus and the livestock. She's just not dead yet. Her body still moves as it slowly crumbles. Ammi also encounters something like a cloud, or some hateful current of vapour and for a moment strange colours dance before his eyes.
When he returns downstairs, Nahum has also turned grey and crumbly.
"Nothin' ... nothin' ... the colour ... it burns ... cold an; wet ... but it burns ... it lived in the well ... I seen it ... a kind o' smoke ... jest like the flowers last spring ... the well shone at night ... Than an' Mernie an' Zenas ... everything alive ... suckin' the life out of everything ..."
Ammi flees the farm and goes to the police. Three policemen, along with the coroner  the medical examiner and the local veterinarian accompany him back to the Gardener farm to investigate. They find the grey remains of Nahum and his wife. Examining the well, they find the skeletons of the two missing boys.
Their investigation takes longer than Ammi would like and night falls. Light begins pouring out of the well and the trees outside the farmhouse begin to writhe on their own accord with no wind to stir them, the tips of their branches glowing like St. Elmo's fire. The very planks and beams of the old farmhouse begin to glow eerily.

A column of the unknown colour shoots out of the well, straight up into the sky, taking with it all the trees, all the wood, everything organic in the farm. The men only barely escape.

Something had come with the meteor, that was clear; something from another world, something the sucked the life out of every living thing it touched; something which had now returned to the stars which spawned it, leaving nothing but grey desolation behind it.

Or has it completely gone? Ammi has his doubts. As they fled the farmhouse, Ammi looked back and thought he saw something feebly rise after the cataclysm, only to sink back down into the well. And the toxic grey blight of the blasted heath continues to spread about an inch more every year.

Once the dam is built, the waters of the reservoir will cover the site and put an end to the last vestiges of the strange days. Perhaps. But the Narrator thinks he will not want to drink any of the water in the Town of Arkham when it does.
Meanwhile I hope nothing will happen to Ammi. He saw so much of the thing -- and its influence was so insidious. ...I would hate to think of him as the grey, twisted, brittle monstrosity which persists more and more in troubling my sleep.
NEXT:  What's with weird Wilbur Whateley? And what does it have to do with the Necronomicon? The hills are alive with the sound of "The Dunwich Horror"! Tell 'em Yog-Sothoth sent you!