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Goth Chick News: Welcome to the Blumhouse…

Goth Chick News: Welcome to the Blumhouse…

Though I can’t say I love everything Jason Blum produces, I would say that if he ever calls the Black Gate office looking for me, someone bloody well transfer him to my cell phone pronto.

Though Blum has been the driving force behind nearly 200 films dating back to 1995, it was when he created his own micro-budget company, Blumhouse Productions, in 2000 that he finally had the creative freedom to scare the living crap out of us. Blum’s low budget model launched his horror career with a serious winner. Paranormal Activity cost $15K to make thanks to Blum borrowing a location and camera equipment, and paying two of his friends $500 each to star.

Flash forward a few years to when Paramount acquired the U.S. rights for $350K. PA went on to pull in $193 million worldwide, making this the second most profitable film ever made based on a return of investment, behind only The Blair Witch Project. Word is that during PA’s first test screenings, people started leaving the theater. Blum thought he had made a flop, only to discover that people left the auditorium because they couldn’t handle the intensity of the scares.

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When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.

Pledge of the Altenerai

 

And with When the Goddess Wakes, Howard Andrew Jones’s Ring-Sworn Trilogy comes to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps the series’ greatest asset is its completion. In one two-and-a-half-year span — complete with a plague — all three books have appeared and that’s it, there ain’t no more. I waited six years between installments of Glen Cook’s Black Company, and millions of people have been waiting ten years for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (good luck with that). Jones got in and got out, producing three tightly-plotted and -paced novels. For that alone, as a reader I say, “Thank you!” But there’s more to it than that.

The first book, For the Killing of Kings (2019) introduces the Altenerai, a corps of superior warriors complete with magical talents. They are dedicated to protecting the five realms of the Dendressi from forces magical and mundane. Just as it is discovered that a kingdom-destabilizing conspiracy leads right to the Queen, the five realms are invaded by the Naor, a brutal barbarian horde. Less than a decade earlier the Naor were almost victorious. This time around, most of the greatest Altenerai are missing or dead, and it seems as though only a pair of young Altenerai and a few veterans are ready to stand against the Dendressi’s enemies. That book ends grimly, with death and destruction and what seems certain victory of both the Naor and the Queen.

Upon the Flight of the Queen (2019) {That’s two books in one year, folks! It can be done.} begins right where the previous book left off, with death and destruction continuing apace. The Naor march on the capital, Darassus, and the Queen’s plot to resurrect a long lost goddess in order to create a utopia is revealed. Each promises destruction for the Dendressi. Both are thwarted, but the Queen escapes with every intention of carrying out her plan.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XVII: Seobok

Fantasia 2021, Part XVII: Seobok

I closed out the fifth day of Fantasia 2021 with another short-and-feature bundle. “Vulnerability” (“Seijakusei”) is a 26-minute piece from Japan, written and directed by Eiji Tanigawa. It was made as an episode of an anthology TV show for FOD, the streaming arm of the Fuji Television Network; “Nogizaka Cinemas -STORY of 46-” is a show featuring idol group Nogizaka46, with each episode starring a different member. “Vulnerability” is a mixture of detective story and near-future science-fiction that plays out a little like Blade Runner if the replicants weren’t really that advanced.

In the year 2027, the Messiah lifestyle support androids (all played by Shiori Kubo) are perfect duplicates of human beings, with the rudimentary personality of a digital assistant. Something odd’s going on with their owners, though, who are displaying strange outbursts of violence. Two cops try to find what’s happening, but will they prove vulnerable to the weird effect? It’s a well-told story, with very strong visuals, an intriguing theme about living with digital perfection, and a good structure that ends in a surprising place. It won Fantasia’s International Short Film competition, and you can see it for yourself here.

The feature that accompanied the short was Seobok (서복), a science-fiction story from Korea with action and espionage elements. It follows Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo, Train to Busan), a Korean secret service agent now retired and afflicted with a fatal brain tumour. His former superior, who he neither trusts nor likes, calls on him for one last mission — which might save his life.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XII: Little Vampire

Fantasia 2021, Part XII: Little Vampire

I opened the fourth day of Fantasia 2021 with a bundle of two animated films. The shorter was “Bye-Bye Elida,” a 35-minute piece written and directed by Titouan Bordeau. It takes place in a strange desert, where various people and creatures wander about and connect up. There is no dialogue, and I felt the piece might have benefitted from more explanation — or from more detailed visual storytelling, one of the two. The general idea here is clear; the different characters the film presents, cutting between them at odd points, are all players in an overall ecology. It’s a little like Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld (a most peculiar comic book experience), a similarity enhanced by the whimsical designs, the 2D linework, and the restrained colours. But I didn’t find myself engaged in the same way; the individual sections had too rudimentary a narrative, and at least at one viewing the conclusion didn’t tie enough together for me. It’s an interesting experiment, but not to my mind entirely successful.

The feature film was Little Vampire, directed by Joann Sfar from his own graphic novels, with the adaptation co-scripted by Sandrina Jardel. It opens with Pandora (Camille Cottin), the young and beautiful mother of a ten-year-old boy (Louise Lacoste) being chased with her child by an aristocrat obsessed with her; she calls on the spirits of the dead; they answer; the woman and boy become a vampire, and flee with the skeletal captain of a flying ship — the Flying Dutchman (Jean-Paul Rouve). Three hundred years later, they’ve built a sanctuary from the twisted monster the cruel nobleman has become, a thing called the Gibbus (Alex Lutz). Pandora and the Flying Dutchman have ensured that their boy, known only as Little Vampire, doesn’t remember any of the long pursuit. Instead they all live (well, as it were) in a sprawling crumbling mansion on a hill, where Little Vampire and his monster friends watch horror movies every night.

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Fantasia 2021, Part IX: Frank & Zed

Fantasia 2021, Part IX: Frank & Zed

“A Puff Before Dying,” a 10-minute short written and directed by the team of Mike Pinkney and Michael Reich, is a public-service advertisement performed with marionettes. It’s a little like Team America: World Police, I suppose, with a similar sense of irony. There’s a teenage girl (Annie Mebane) who smokes marijuana; her father (James Kirkland) is a cop who hates pot because he’s seen too many people die in car crashes where the driver was stoned; the girl goes for a drive with pothead friends; and the PSA plays out as you might expect. I was not immediately impressed by the humour of the short, but the fact it was actually paid for and approved by The National Road Safety Foundation brings the irony of the piece to another level — it’s so intensely ironic, it’s wrapped back around to being sincere. You can judge the thing for yourself, as the NRSF has it available on their website (scroll down, or search in page for ‘puff’).

The feature that the Fantasia Film Festival bundled with the short was Frank & Zed, a gory puppet movie filled to the brim with felted carnage. Written and directed by Jesse Blanchard, it took six years to make with no studio backing — a Kickstarter-funded DIY project driven by Blanchard’s determination and optimism (on display in a question-and-answer session on Fantasia’s YouTube page). Does the 90-minute result justify the time and effort?

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Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

When I was young I watched numerous live-action animal movies on The Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday nights on NBC, right after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom). There was Run, Cougar, Run (1972), Nikki, Dog of the North (1961), and my favorite, The Incredible Journey (1963). I had, of course, also seen Bambi (1942), an animated movie that gave voice to its animal characters, unlike the live-action ones. The point being, when my friend Karl told me about an exciting book he’d just read about the adventures of rabbits, it sounded like something I’d like. Watership Down (1972) turned out to be nothing like the movies I’d seen and much more than just a book about rabbits.

Richard Adams, a British civil servant in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, created stories to tell his daughters on car rides. He began with the words “Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver”. The stories were set in and around the real Watership Down, a grass-covered hill in Hampshire, England. It wasn’t long before his daughters insisted he write them down, and in 1966 he started to do just that. After a years-long search for a publisher, Watership Down was released and achieved commercial and critical success, garnering several awards for children’s literature as well.

The bare bones of the novel’s plot are that a band of male rabbits flee their home warren to find a safe place to establish a new one. Along the way, they face adversity in the forms of scarcity, topography, weather, animal predators, and, of course, man. Unlike all those Disney movies, though, Adams wasn’t content to tell a naturalistic story of rabbits in the wild like a lagomorphic version of Tarka the Otter (1927). In the most basic sense, then, Watership Down is not allegorical; Adams repeatedly made that clear. Nonetheless, he dug deep into the sorts of mythic tropes Joseph Campbell explored in works like The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)* and the novel is brimming with archetypal elements, e.g. the young man maturing into a hero, self-sacrifice, existential struggles against evil and death. Though devised as a non-allegorical children’s work, Watership Down, informed by Adams’s conservatism and Christianity, addresses some of the deepest issues of humanity and society without ever stooping to didacticism or condescension. Even socialists have discovered great political meaning in the book.

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System Shutdown

System Shutdown

January 1st

Dear Diary,

In an attempt to embrace change and personal growth, I’ve decided to challenge myself, and so my next project will be an edgy cyberpunk novel. This will allow me to plumb the darkest depths of cynicism, as well as the steep cliffs of optimism by which one must escape. Accordingly, I have delved into the technology of tomorrow, studying it while it is just a looming threat, and have also fixed on a number of social ills that I plan on putting front and center in my worldbuilding. I am virtually quivering with excitement! Virtually? Ha ha!

A book about a game about a genre.

In order to leaven the darkness with a touch of whimsy, I have decided to code-name this project Mirrorball. Though, now that I write it, this may be a bit retro-techno, with sinister undertones, and far too close to serve as a working title. I shall just have to learn to enjoy the subtle frisson this name evokes within me. Can you say “Hello, world!” Mirrorball? I knew you could!

And more good news! The realtor’s sign is gone from the house next door. I eagerly await the arrival of my new neighbors!

Techno-Inspiration: Google Time Crystals, of course!

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Fantasia 2021, Part II: Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes

Fantasia 2021, Part II: Beyond The Infinite Two Minutes

Beyond The Infinite Two MinutesThe 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival presented most of its hundred-plus feature films over the internet, some of them streaming at scheduled times, others available across the duration of the festival. (Which ended on the 25th; I ended up watching so many movies during the three weeks the festival ran I didn’t have time to write about them.) Looking at the schedule for August 5th, the first day, I didn’t see anything scheduled that I wanted to cover, and decided to watch some of the on-demand titles. Which raised the question of which film would be the best way to start my Fantasia 2021 experience. After some havering, I made my pick.

But before describing it, I’ll note that many of the features at Fantasia came bundled with a short film, and that was the case here. “Viewers:1” is a five-minute film written and directed by Daigo Hariya and Yosuke Kobayashi, starring Yuki Hashiguchi as the last man on Earth, desperately trying to present a smiling, optimistic take on the end of the world as he live-streams his wanderings. The world’s haunted by vast mechanical forms but deserted by humanity — and then comes a twist. It’s a well-made piece, carried by Hashiguchi’s ability to convey a sense of profound despair under a facade of crazed buoyancy. Strong special effects support the story and add to the menace.

Then the feature: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら, Droste no hate de bokura), a time-twisting one-take comedy from Japan. Kato (Kazunori Tosa) owns a café in Kyoto. He has an apartment above the café, and a crush on a young lady, Megumi (Aki Asakura), who works in the neighbouring barbershop. And one day after work he goes upstairs to find that there’s a delay between the computer monitor in his apartment and the screen it’s linked to downstairs — the café screen communicates to his monitor from two minutes in the future. The downbeat Kato is at first distinctly unimpressed, but his friends and his employee Aya (Riko Fujitani) are excited and start figuring out ways to take advantage of the two-minute glimpse of the future. Their future selves speak to them — but can they be trusted? And what happens if some actions have consequences that extend beyond two minutes?

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Treading Carefully

Treading Carefully

As soon as the bag was swept off of my head, I knew that I hadn’t been taken to Black Gate‘s legal department for a refresher in corporate espionage. Rather, I was in a clean, well-lit room, circular in shape and towering in height. Wide windows let in shafts of morning light, filtered through the vines and flowers that hung in streamers from planters at intervals, and trellises rising up the walls. I hadn’t suspected a place like this existed outside of the Editorial Spa, and found it to be a pleasant surprise.

The man who had removed my hood, however, shoved me backward as I got my bearings, and I fell unceremoniously into a massive beanbag just behind me. As I struggled to sit upright once more, a woman took a position across from me before a plush divan, and while her dusky Mediterranean skin contrasted with the sharp white of her suit, her cool gaze contrasted with literally every other emotional cue in the room. She sat.

“You’re not with Black Gate, are you?” I ventured.

“No, Mr. Starr. I’m with the Office of Regionally Generated Attitudes.”

The crew of the Starship Diversity is ready for adventure!

“Am I in some sort of trouble?” I was suddenly a lot less comfortable sprawled out in the beanbag, but all efforts to sit straight and match her bearing failed. I slumped back.

“Oh, no. Not yet. We are simply here to review the situation, before it gets out of hand.”

“The… situation?”

“Your current project. It’s a diversity issue, you see.”

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A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Vol 1

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Vol 1

You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

This past weekend was PulpFest 2021. It used to be here in Columbus, but moved to the Pittsburgh area a few years ago. Steeger Books released several new titles, including one from Norbert Davis. If you’ve been reading A (Black) Gat in the Hand here at Black Gate, you know I’m on a mission to raise Davis’ modern day profile.

Steeger is issuing a two-volume set with all the stories Davis sold to Black Mask editor Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw. And I’ve written new introductions for each one. I’m thrilled to see more of Davis’ stories back in print, and you can get a preview of volume one below; It’s my intro. I know, I know – how exciting! Keep reading for my thoughts on Davis and four of his Black Mask tales.

Like many of his contemporaries, Norbert Davis wrote for different outlets, including for the Westerns, war stories, and even romance markets. But he was at his best in the private eye/mystery field. Davis could write standard hardboiled fare, but he excelled at mixing humor into the genre. Unfortunately (and aided and abetted by his wonderful Doan and Carstairs novels), that has left the skewed view that he could only write screwball hardboiled stories. And that’s simply not accurate.

Davis was a law student at Stanford when “The Bonded Stuff” appeared in the March, 1932 issue of Real Detective. A mere three months later in June, his first submission to Black Mask, “Reform Racket,” saw print. Davis continued writing, and after he graduated in 1934, he never bothered to take the bar exam: A career in the pulps beckoned instead.

Though Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, legendary editor of Black Mask, accepted that first submission, he didn’t feel that Davis’ hardboiled humor really fit the magazine. So, even with a home run in his first at-bat, the writer only managed to break into Black Mask a total of five times duringthe years of Shaw’s reign: 1932 – 1937. Davis had success in other markets, however, with eighteen mystery stories seeing print in 1936, for example. And several stories appeared in Black Mask after Shaw departed. Davis later ‘moved up’ to the higher-paying, more respectable, glossy slicks.

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