Cover by Roger Betka
The Flock of Ba-Hui and Other Stories
Oobmab (translated by Arthur Meursault and Akira)
Camphor Press (254 pages, $24.99 hardcover/$14.99 paperback/$6.99 digital, February 2020)
Beyond the protective barrier of Europe’s vast libraries, Latinate languages, aristocratic bloodlines, and imperial armies, there lurks a malign chaos of ancient knowledge and alien science. To our Western eyes, this chaos is a universe of black magic and monsters but there is, alas, much more to it than that, when one considers the full span of inhuman evil that extends from ancient creatures long outcast, brooding and breeding sinister vengeance in the Earth’s depths, to the latest incursions by loathsome entities whose blasphemous technologies have carried them to this green and innocent planet from the mist-shrouded globes circling the farthest stars.
This is essentially Lovecraft country: a universe that has become known as the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Ever-fearful of dark forces from the outside, in daily life the American author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was an enthusiastic exponent of modernity – the expansion of northern European cultures throughout the world to the disadvantage, even appropriation, even erasure, of indigenous and non-European cultures. As America itself blossomed into an imperial power, Lovecraft’s United Empire loyalism (which to be fair, was greatly mitigated in his later years) envisioned a USA that “must ever remain an integral and important part [as he wrote at age 24] of the great universal empire of British thought and literature.”
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft treasured his native New England not only for its green fields, stone churches, and stately mansions, but for the ways these things embodied the culture of an even-more-native England, a just and civilized seat of a white, English-speaking empire, an island across the sea that he felt linked to in spirit, although he never saw it in person.
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Nothing can be more exhausting, enervating, overlong, and less worthy of repeat viewings, than a Hollywood summer blockbuster, but these supermovies are often preceded by invigorating trailers that deliver all their best features in a small fraction of the running time. This has never been truer than it is for the new (July 2018) trailer for next year’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters.
Music is the reactor core that powers this remarkable two and a half minutes of commercial cinema salesmanship. The nineteenth century composer Claude Debussy meets the 21st-century kaijū movie in a work noteworthy for both (1) its profoundly affective qualities and (2) the extent to which, as promotion for a Hollywood blockbuster, it’s strictly business. Let’s begin with the affective part.
A world in flames. A military in disarray. A divided family: to the Vera Farmiga character’s husband, she’s “out of her goddamned mind,” and her daughter calls her “a monster.” These are all familiar tropes from the movies, but not from the classic Godzilla movies, where typically the everyday world is more or less functional and well-organized; a world where the monsters enter as a destructive and destabilizing force.
I use “classic” to loosely describe the period from Godzilla’s 1954 debut to the 1970s, where Godzilla‘s onscreen persona evolved from the sheer vengeful malignity of the original Gojira, to a villain set up to be defeated by other, nice monsters, to a more or less sympathetic antihero, in movies in which he came to embody either the benign indifference of the universe, or a friendly giant who would be a welcome guest on a morning kid’s show (if he could avoid crushing the TV studio under his enormous feet).
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Toronto police constable Ken Lam confronts the perpetrator of the Yonge Street van massacre,
April 23, 2018. The driver left his vehicle and repeatedly “drew” his cellphone as if it were a
firearm, pointing it and shouting at Lam to shoot him. Without firing a shot, the constable
forced the suspect to the sidewalk and handcuffed him.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar. Besides its wonderful title (say it aloud!), the 1968 novel is worth remembering for its author’s uncanny predictions of what 21st century culture and technology might look like.
I use the word “predictions” hesitantly, since I feel that too often we lend a sort of second-rate legitimacy to authors who write stories of the future when we focus on such of their predictions that may have, in some way or other, “come true.” Jules Verne “predicted” the submarine, H.G. Wells tank and aerial warfare, E.M. Forster the internet, and so on. It becomes a form of damning with faint praise. If we focus on an author’s talent for alleged “prediction,” we can overlook the extent to which in expostulating futures, these authors actually wrote about their own time, and did so with insight and creativity. From this point of view, the extrapolations that didn’t “come true” are just as meaningful as those that did, but by focusing on just the “accurate” predictions, by depicting these writers as somehow Nostradamus-type prophets, we make clear that they’re not being judged for their literary value. Instead, they have been relegated to a room separate from that of the genuine canon of literary greats, their predictive ability categorizing each of them less as a genuine creative artist than as a clever algorithm, like a particularly well-programmed weather app.
Indeed, the SF genre is full of talented artists who remained within the genre and never particularly got their due as literary writers: the iconic status that such prolific genre authors as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Harlan Ellison now enjoy was gained not when they wrote specifically “literary” books, but when they skipped that step and when straight into writing scripts for well-regarded films and TV shows, a kind of canonization into popular culture (reinforced by the knowledge that in these cases, their art gained them large paycheques) that any literary writer would envy.
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One of the most influential series in early television has actually made its way into science fiction history as a book. You can see my copy below: The Quatermass Experiment by Nigel Kneale, a plain 1959 paperback with the classic Penguin orange, cream, and black cover.
Ridley Scott’s Alien, John Carpenter’s The Thing, the very existence of Doctor Who, not to mention 1980s-1990s films such as Life Force, Species, and The Astronaut’s Wife, and contemporary films such as Under the Skin, Life and The Cloverfield Paradox, where alien invasion takes the form of infection and transformation – all these are different faces of a genre that began with The Quatermass Experiment in the shaky, static-filled first days of black-and-white television – back with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the years after World War II.
In 1953, Nigel Kneale was a young writer and actor on the make. He had won an award for his 1949 short story collection Tomato Cain (a book which includes, among more naturalistic tales, portraits of vengeful nature and ancient supernatural evil that foreshadow his later works for TV and film). After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Kneale did some acting, but he had more success as a writer in the emerging field of television.
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Who among us is so tired at heart, so bereft of purpose, so bored with life, that we would not want to risk our lives shooting at enormous monsters with high-powered guns? Not me, for sure, and I’m sure you feel the same way. This vicarious pleasure is certainly part of the appeal of watching the giant-monster films that began with King Kong in 1933, and that really got going in the 1950s with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, and Godzilla.
I began watching these films as a young boy; as a boy, because of these iconic works, I felt that all that I needed to speed up my passage to manhood was a rampaging tyrannosaurus rex, and a bazooka. Fortunately, manhood eventually came to me through other means. Other boys, however, have grown up to make movies – in a handful of cases, to remake the favorite monster movies of their youths into multi-million dollar blockbusters.
Unfortunately, we’ve found that there are few films more disappointing than blockbuster remakes of modestly-budgeted originals. The 2010 Wolf Man doesn’t hold a candle to the 1941 original, the 2005 King Kong, like all Peter Jackson films, seems to go on forever, and although the makers of the 2014 Godzilla doubtless revere the 1954 original, their efforts will certainly never replace it as an iconic work that resonates for its time, and afterwards. What is needed is not to remake these now-classic stories, but to reconstruct them, to create something original out of them, that will force their familiar narratives into new and unexpected shapes.
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“One might not think of our city as a muse,” began a recent review of my first YA horror novel The Midnight Games in a Hamilton magazine. But if you ask me, good horror novels, because they assume that monstrous secrets lurk behind the facades of everyday life, always convey a strong sense of place: I’m thinking of the New York City of Whitley Streiber’s The Wolfen, the Los Angeles of Robert McCammon’s They Thirst, or even the east coast gothic of Tim Wynne-Jones’ Odd’s End (which is an archetypical Canadian production — a horror novel about real estate).
In any case, Hamilton, Ontario, just southwest of Toronto, is a grimy little city that, like a lot of its relatives in the USA, dearly misses the great days of its industries (in this case, steel); days that have passed and that will not return again. One result of this is a working class culture, deeply depressed, that tends towards the nostalgic, and by nature I am a relentless optimist who regards nostalgia with a distaste approaching revulsion. For all that, I’ve lived in Hamilton since 2002 and the city has been good to me in many ways; let’s just say it’s enabled me to write a lot of books.
One day a local Hamilton publisher, Noelle Allen, put out a Facebook call for Hamilton-based books on behalf of her company, Wolsak & Wynn. I replied, “What we need is a horror novel, set in Hamilton, that people will read on the bus.” I volunteered to write such a novel.
Like it or not, for the past twelve years my family and I have lived a couple of blocks from Ivor Wynne, the local football stadium, and we hear all the noise from the Tiger Cats games. So I began a novel in which my protagonist hears a racket from the stadium at night, which he thinks of as “midnight games.” However, they are not games at all, but the cruel ceremonies of a local cult which is trying to summon to earth the Great Old Ones of the H.P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Mythos; trying with what turns out to be a fair degree of success.
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