Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2015

And what a subpar year for genre filmmaking it looked set to be only a couple of months ago!  Until November, I wasn't convinced that I'd be able to dredge up enough really good films to make this article worthwhile, so many disappointments had the previous ten months offered up.

For a start, we'd had not a single really great superhero movie.  Big Hero 6 was an achingly minor bit of work and the weakest Disney animated movie in years.  Avengers: Age of Ultron flipflopped between excellence and mediocrity often within scenes and generally felt more like an exercise in brand-building than anything that could objectively be called a story.  Ant Man was marred by modest ambitions and even more modest direction.  Fantastic Four was ... well, I was one of the few people who somewhat liked it, but no amount of blind eye-turning could ignore how all that production turmoil had left it short of a functional third act.

Elsewhere, things weren't a great deal better.  The third Hobbit movie learned not a thing from the mistakes of the first two Hobbit movies.  Crimson Peak was further evidence - often stunningly pretty evidence, in fairness - that Guillermo del Toro has abandoned all interest in the telling of coherent or genuinely imaginative stories.  Tommorowland was a crushing disappointment coming from the director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and a flat-out bad movie in its own right.  And Terminator: Genisys turned out to be exactly the film that its stupid subtitle implied.

Still, let's not despair.  Now that I've scraped my top ten together, it's not such a bad list, all told, and 2015 looks a lot better in retrospect than it did at the time.  One cheering fact is the relative lack of sequels and franchise movies; another is the presence of writers and directors who are anything but surefire certainties.  I mean, how precisely did Colin Trevorrow end up helming one of the year's biggest movies?  Strange times indeed...

10) Mr Holmes

One of those movies that seems to have been largely forgotten almost immediately after coming out, Mr Holmes was an intriguing mix of genre and prestige picture grounded in a typically marvelous Ian McKellen performance, but marred by an agonisingly sedate pace and director Bill Condon's determination to suck the life out of his film at every turn.  It's easy to imagine a more satisfying take on the same concept, or even the same material, but that's not to say that the one we got isn't worth a look.

9) Jupiter Ascending

I wish I could defend Jupiter Ascending more, because it annoyed me to no end that people were so quick to jump all over it for daring to be quirky, imaginative, occasionally silly and often flat out weird; apparently in the age of the remake, rehash and reimagining, those are transgressive sins in the eyes of the average genre fan.  Sadly, while often fun and occasionally brilliant - I don't know what the hell that Eddie Redmayne performance was supposed to be, but I want more of it! - Jupiter Ascending never quite managed to find its groove.  Still, in terms of inventiveness alone, it was ten times the movie that a certain other space opera appearing lower down this list was...

8) Jurassic World

In a better year, this wouldn't have scratched the top ten, and given that I don't have a lot of love for the franchise I went in without much enthusiasm, but you know what?  It was dumb fun, and sometimes dumb fun counts for a lot - especially when it's only quite dumb and not, say, Terminator: Genisys dumb.  With a little more of the quirky energy that director Trevorrow brought to his debut Safety Not Guaranteed, I might even have loved it a little.  As it was, it did about what a blockbuster of low ambition should do: it entertained through its running time and didn't hang around afterwards to clog up the memory.

Very nearly great and without doubt fun, The Martian might have done better to not make such a pretense of scientific rigor when under the surface it was only a little bit smarter than the average Transformers movie.  Still, it came a lot closer to proper science fiction than we're generally allowed these days, and did so with a steady supply of wit and thrills, not to mention an impossible-to-dislike performance from Matt Damon, a man who can apparently make potato-growing cool and exciting.  If only it had found more uses for its extraordinary cast, if only there'd been a little more plausibility in there, it might have been brilliant; but in a year like this one, it's hard to moan too much about a good science fiction film that at least pretended to be interested in real, actual science stuff.

6) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

My first thought coming out of Star Wars: TFA, and a thought that's remained largely unchanged by the gushing adoration of just about everyone, was, "that was some technically outstanding film-making in service of a story that had no need to be told."  So however-many years after A New Hope, everything's basically exactly the same but with different names?  And more plot holes?  Well, that's disappointing, to say the least.  But if you can ignore the non-story and a couple of subpar performances - as it seems people are not only willing but eager to do - then, yes, it was pretty great.  Abrams finally got his directing act together, the new characters were a likable bunch, the whole thing looked stunning (not only in terms of Star Wars-ness but on every technical level) and, perhaps most importantly, it was good enough to bode well for the franchise going forward.

5) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

I'm going to miss this series, and I never thought for an instant I'd ever be typing that when I first sat down to watch The Hunger Games.  I'll miss its horrifying bleakness, I'll miss Jennifer Lawrence showing how you can be the star of a major tentpole and still sneak in some of that acting stuff, and I'll miss the fact that a series aimed squarely at teenagers nevertheless managed to tackle real world and very adult issues with more bite and anger than almost any Hollywood movie of the last decade.  There's no getting around the fact that the decision to split the final book in two was a stupid one made for all the wrong reasons, but part 2 suffers less for it than part 1 did; where that was a movie consisting entirely of setup, this one is basically all third act, which turns out to be not such a bad thing at all.

Why aren't more people talking about Predestination?  Well maybe because it technically came out last year and I'm cheating a little, but it was released in the UK in 2015 and anyway, I don't remember it getting much buzz in 2014 either.  Adapting Robert Heinlein's short story All You Zombies, Predestination is basically one of those puzzle movies where your role as viewer is to unravel the knot the filmmakers drop in your lap, except that rather than being a fruitless exercise in self-congratulating cleverness like Primer (there, I said it) it's a rich, rewarding dissection of human nature and gender politics that delights in taking your assumptions, chewing them up and spitting them back in your face.  Take my word ... find a copy, go in with no foreknowledge, let Predestination take you on its weird ride and you won't regret it.

3) Mad Max: Fury Road

What's to say, at this stage?  It was great.  It actually lived up to expectations, even when the expectations were absurd.  It threw traditions of structure and narrative out of every available window and yet somehow managed to tell a compelling story with three dimensional characters.  It angered boy nerds by daring to suggest that a woman could kick more ass than our dear old Max.  It had some of the most extraordinary action sequences ever committed to film.  It looked astonishing.  And ... I found it just a little bit hollow.  Which is not a remotely useful criticism, but there we go.  I loved it, but I didn't love it, and so here it sits at number 3.

2) Inside Out

Just when I'd given up on there ever being another great Pixar film, along came another great Pixar film ... for my money, possibly the greatest, though perhaps it's too early to say that.  At once overloaded with ideas and puritanical in its simplicity - if you think about it, it's never for a moment about anything other than its main character - Inside Out is a masterpiece of making immensely complex themes accessible without dumbing them down, and in particular manages to talk about grief with an honesty and insight that would shame many a miserabilist art house director.

Given Pixar's slate going forward, it's heartbreaking to realise that this might be the last great work of what has unquestionably been the defining voice of western animation in the twenty first century.  But at the same time, Inside Out is good enough that I almost feel okay about all those damn sequels.

1) Ex Machina 

I've seen this amidst a few end of year lists, which is heartening because for a while it seemed like it might go the way of Predestination and so many other great movies that didn't have the marketing budgets of those mega-franchises up there.  My expectations were muted by the fact that I've never much liked - and occasionally hated - director Garland's work in the past, so it came as all the more surprise when it turned out that he'd made ... oh hell, let's just go there, the best science fiction film of the decade so far.  Smart, intricate, challenging, unexpected and subversive, buoyed by tremendous acting from all four leads and some of the finest and most well-used digital effects work I've ever seen, Ex Machina is still fresh in my mind months after I saw it, and a few of its more potent images are probably seared there forever.  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Life and Times of Digital Science Fiction

So once upon a time I sold a story called Black Sun to a new pro-rate market named Digital Science Fiction, and it appeared in their debut issue, an anthology by the appropriate name of First Contact.  It turned out to be a strong collection, considerably better and more professional than first issues are wont to be.  And so soon after that I sent them a second story, Across the Terminator, which was scheduled to appear in their fifth collection ... until circumstances got in the way and DSF was forced to close its doors.

This was a bad thing.  Not actually directly for me, since I eventually resold the story to Clarkesworld, but nevertheless, in the wider publishing-cosmology sense, a solid piece of bad news all round.  Good, well-paying markets don't exactly grow on trees, and even in a brief space of time DSF had shown itself to be something exciting and valuable.

Then, a few months ago, publisher Michael Wills got in touch to tell me that he was bringing Digital Science Fiction back in a new and improved format, and would I be interested in letting him reprint the story that would have appeared in anthology number five had it happened all those years ago?  Of course I said yes, because money obviously, but also because Michael had always been a pleasure to work with and the whole thing just felt right.  He'd been immensely positive about Across the Terminator back in the day and, as nice as it had been to have it in Clarkesworld (it really was nice) it still somehow felt like DSF was where it belonged.

Since then I've sold a couple more reprints to Michael: The Painted City came out a while back on its own and is now collected as part of the Infinity Cluster collection, out this weekend and on special offer until the end of today.  And Dancing in the Winter Rooms, originally published way back when in Electric Velocipede, is scheduled to appear in the not-too-distant future as a solo e-book and then, some time later, as part of anthology number seven, to be known as Ctrl Alt Delight.

Anyway, putting aside as much as I can the fact that they've published a fair bit of my work, I heartily recommend taking a look at what Digital Science Fiction - and for that matter its brand new sister company Digital Fantasy Fiction - are up to.  I've read all of their output so far and enjoyed, I would say, about eighty percent of it, which is considerably above what I'd normally expect, hard to please git that I am.  There's a definite leaning towards solid storytelling above overbearing style, and yet within that, an impressive range of approaches, subjects and attitudes that keeps any two books from feeling overly alike.  And on top of that, there's an appealing Pokemon-esque quality to the fact that these things are coming out weekly; it's weirdly addictive to keep picking them up, never quite knowing what to expect.

For that matter, I'd also recommend DSF and DFF as markets to fellow authors.  There aren't that many places that will pay for reprints, and there are considerably fewer that will do anything so lavish as putting them out as individual e-books with their own shiny covers.  All told, Digital Science Fiction feels to me like an interesting new corner of the genre publishing world, one excitingly different from anything else out there, and I suspect that if it gets embraced the way it deserves to then it's only going to grow in strength and scope over the next few months.

Oh, and if you should fancy a read of any of the works listed, all titles link to their respective stories / anthologies on Amazon...

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams & A Twist Too Far

A brief note before we begin: I was recently reporting The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories as to be out earlier this month, and the attentive will notice that it hasn't materialized yet.  The new release date is, touch wood, the 15th of January, with the hardback edition due by the 15th of April at the latest...

The thought that first springs to mind in regards to Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams is that it came out of the same bout of insomnia - or maybe, rather, waiting-to-fall-asleep-weirdness - that produced my first novel Giant Thief, and so its sequels, and so basically my entire career as it now stands.  Which is quite a lot of emotional weight to lay on one fairly short short story!

Of the two, though, Caretaker is without a doubt the piece that feels like it was cobbled together out of random bits of cerebral flotsam on the very verge of sleep.  Which is to say, it's downright odd; so odd that I find it odd and I wrote it.  It was a late addition to the collection, added in when I was thinking that maybe a few more thousands words wouldn't go amiss and realised that, hey, a freakish Dark Fantasy story based on a nearly-dream wouldn't be altogether outside the parameters of what I had in mind.

A side note: isn't one of the cool things about horror is that it's where the monsters get to have a voice?  I think maybe that's so.  Certainly the pleasure of writing this one, other than how fundamentally strange it is, was that I got to describe some horrible things from a perspective so divorced from our own that you barely realise how nasty much of what happens is until you step back and think about it.

Of A Twist Too Far, I feel like all I should really have to say is, how creepy are contortionists?  I mean, not as people, I'm sure they're lovely people, or at least only creepy in the normal human ratios of creepiness to non-creepiness.  But as a medium of entertainment, contortionists are pretty creepy.  And it's plain amazing that there aren't more horror stories written about them.  Which, perhaps needless to add given all the introduction and that title, this one is.  It sprang out of some similar impulses to The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma, in that once again the narrator is a Watson to the protagonist's Holmes, looking on in awe, bafflement and eventually in horror as they go further and further beyond the pale.  In a A Twist Too Far, however, the object of the narrator's fascination is a genuinely extraordinary individual - and one who only gets more extraordinary as the story progresses.

Here's a sample:
Fortesque took it upon himself to educate me on the intricacies of contortionism: of the subtleties of frontbending and backbending, of enterology and the professional's disgust at dislocations and other such cheap tricks.  I soon discovered that contortion, like any trade perhaps, has unfathomable depths beneath a surface of simplicity.  I learned too that even then, amongst his peers, Fortesque was an athlete of remarkable ability.  It wasn't for nothing they called him the Human Knot.  He could flow like water in a breeze; rearrange himself as though his limbs were some puzzle carelessly manipulated.
Yet he was not happy.  I saw that the moment we met, and the certainty only grew upon me.  His eyes were haunted.  His moods were fiercely changeable.  He would drink, sometimes, as though he fervently wished to be dead.
I would try to question him, of course.  "Frederick, something bothers you."
"What?  No Victor, just this miasmal London weather."
"You seem perturbed."
"I'm nothing of the kind."
Fortesque, it struck me, was a man in great need of a confidant.  Yet however much I probed or expressed my concern, he did not confide.  I had lost a brother-in-law to monomania some years before, and knew enough to recognise the symptoms.  He was in the grip of a commanding fervour, and I felt earnestly that without my aid it might consume him.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 7

Ha!  I bet you thought I'd given up on these, right?  Yet here we are at part 7!  I'd say this had got silly, but clearly we're well past that point.  I distantly remember pledging to only review things that were actually some good this time around, but of course it hasn't entirely worked out like that - though this is probably as close as we're ever likely to get.

Without further ado, then, this time around we have: Macross Plus the Movie, Armitage III: Poly Matrix, Bio Hunter and Gunbuster.

Macross Plus (Movie Edition), 1995, dir: Shôji Kawamori

If there was ever a testament to the power of editing then Macross Plus: the Movie is it.  For those who haven't been following along with these articles, this is the film version of an OVA series that I was underwhelmed by all the way back in part 1.  It was visually striking and hugely promising in places, but in the end it disappointed badly, especially given its considerable reputation - and I was hardly overeager to revisit it.

Then I did and it blew me away.  It's no exaggeration to say that the film cut addresses every issue I had with the OVA, in a way that I found almost impossible to believe even while I was watching it.  I mean, just to put that statement in context - whilst heroine Myung is rarely much shy of a victim in the OVA and at her lowest points little more than a trophy for the two equally unbearable male leads to fight irresponsibly over, here it's hard to walk away with any reading where she isn't at least the co-protagonist.  It's impossible to exaggerate how much this rebalances the story, breathing life into scenes that once fell flat and giving the material the spine it originally lacked.  Somehow pushing Myung to centre stage even makes the men tolerable, in that we're viewing them at least partly from her more sympathetic perspective.

It goes much deeper than that, though; it's staggering, really, how boldly Macross Plus has been overhauled.  Certainly things get sacrificed along the way, but to my memory there was nothing lost that doesn't amount to an improvement - and what was great, such as Yôko Kanno's lush score, remains great.  The only possible shortcoming is that some rather stunning action sequences from early on wind up cut, but even then, the one that really stuck with me gets partially edited into the climax - and I'd gladly swap mindless action early on for sequences with real punch later.  As such, Macross Plus: the Movie falls into that relatively tiny category of works that I'd recommend even if you couldn't care a damn about nineties anime; it's a fine science fiction film in its own right.

Armitage III: Polymatrix, 1997, dir: Takuya Sato

It's hard to shake the impression that Blade Runner was even more impactful in Asia than it was in America and Europe; sure, most every American sci-fi film of the following two decades would appropriate its aesthetic, but there's a rather wonderful Korean film that's practically a direct sequel, and for our current purposes there are no end of anime that picked up its themes and ran hard with them.

Needless to say, Armitage III is one of those.  A brief but relevant aside: this isn't the third Armitage movie (though it is another compacted version of an OVA, and more on that in a minute) but a film titled Armitage the Third, and if that isn't sufficiently confusing, consider that its sequel is titled Armitage: Dual Matrix*.  This makes Armitage III the only movie I can think of where logic would dictate that its sequel is in fact its prequel, and damn but that makes me love weird anime titling conventions a little more than I already did.

Anyway, we were talking about how Armitage III owes one hell of a debt to Blade Runner - but coming back to that point, it occurs to me that it's not that big a deal.  You could certainly take Armitage III as a retread of that ridiculously seminal movie, but with the genders swapped and a buddy-cop dynamic thrown in - human cop pairs up with secretly-robot cop - and you absolutely wouldn't be wrong, yet the end result would still be a tremendously solid film: not a masterpiece, maybe not worthy of its influences, but a perfectly fine slice of nineties anime.

Now I say that with one caveat: the only version of Armitage III that's readily available is a US feature film adaptation, with Kiefer Sutherland as the male lead, Ross Syllabus (a depressing bit of whitewashing, but otherwise pretty good news) and Elizabeth Berkley as Armitage (less awful than you'd think.)  This means that approximately half the plot has vanished into the ether, and damn it shows.  Another half hour, a bit more time for the story and relationships to cook, and we might really be looking at a classic.  Then again, that can't entirely take away from what we get: solid, distinctive animation, bold design, an unusually fine dub and - lest I forget - a marvelous electronic soundtrack by a composer, Hiroyuki Namba, who would go on to do not much of anything.  At any rate, while it's maddening that the OVA version is so hard to find, I'm still happy to give this one a definite thumbs up.

Bio Hunter, 1995, dir: Yuzo Sato

Describing something as of its time is a largely futile statement to make when you're talking about nineties anime, but nevertheless, boy but is Bio Hunter of its time.  The involvement of Ninja Scroll's Yoshiaki Kawajiri is a good indication of what to expect: Bio Hunter is transgressive in all the ways that so much of the anime to make it over to the west around this time was, which is to say, lots of nudity, lots of bared breasts, lots of gore and bloodshed and general weirdness, but none of it feeling half as troubling as it probably should.  I mean, Bio Hunter opens with a sex scene that climaxes with a woman's breast morphing into a demon and chomping her partner's hand off, and even that doesn't raise much more than a faintly amused, "Ewwww."

Basically, Bio Hunter is defused at once by its goofiness and its seriousness, sometimes even at the same time.  It is, for example, quite tricky to take that aforementioned scene at all seriously, or to find it particularly horrifying, let alone titillating.**  On the other hand, there's a great deal of cod-science squeezed awkwardly in, the art style is more realistic than is typical of most anime, the backgrounds are lavish and whenever violent and / or bloody things aren't occurring, the pace is strangely languid.

Viewed through the lens of decades, Bio Hunter is obnoxious in its attitude towards women - its female protagonist is quite spectacularly useless - and in its twee desire to shock.  But it's certainly no worse than, say, American horror from the period, and at least it's made with some genuine artistry.  In the end, you probably have a fair idea whether or not you like this kind of thing, and there are plenty worse examples out there.  Bio Hunter is at once overly silly and overly serious, and its sixty minute running time leaves it feeling like a series pilot, as for all I know it was meant to be; but it's cheap to pick up and its high points warrant at least a sit-through if you find yourself curious.

Gunbuster, 1988, dir: Hideaki Anno

And here I go, breaking every rule I've set myself by reviewing an OVA from 1988 that's all but impossible to buy now.  But 1988 is awfully close to 1990, you can watch Gunbuster on legal piracy site Youtube if you don't find their shameless abuse of intellectual property objectionable, and they're my own stupid rules and I'll break them if I like.

The thing is, Gunbuster is a classic - now a largely lost classic - and, again, I promised myself I'd talk about some really good anime this time around.  To put that in context, here's Gunbuster's pedigree: it's what studio Gainax did to follow up from their staggeringly fine debut Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and what Gainax's brightest star Hideaki Anno made to warm up before making the studio's most famous release, Neon Genesis Evangelion, frequently considered the greatest anime series ever created.

Which, if you have only a passing interest in nineties anime, may be so much word salad.  The short version: Gunbuster is the product of immensely talented people near the peak of their powers, and it's pretty much an insult to the medium of animation that it's all but impossible to track down a legitimate copy these days.  All of that said, history is full of lost classics that don't hold up, and anime suffers more than most mediums, so bound is it to technology and so restricted by budgets.

Gunbuster is of its time, without a doubt.  It has colossal space ships.  It has giant robots fighting in space with batons, and even bigger giant robots that combine into an even bigger robot.  It has a great deal of gratuitous partial nudity.  But then, within those brackets, it remains something pretty extraordinary.  From a light-hearted beginning it only grows in scope and ambition, and it says a great deal that though the money largely ran out by episode six and Gainax couldn't afford to colour it - or to animate a key sequence - it still packs one hell of a punch.  Also, it's based loosely on The Forever War, and that old rule about "if you're going to steal, steal from the best" has rarely been more true.  Put all that together, and although perhaps the result isn't indispensable - it veers closer to familiar territory than Honneamise before it or Evangelion after - it's something really damn special.

Also also, its sequel Diebuster, made a whole decade and a half later, may be my favourite OVA of all time.  And if you don't eat your 1988 anime greens then you don't get to enjoy your 2004 anime pudding.


Well, that could have gone worse.  Two stone cold classics, one of them even fairly easy to lay your hands on, a really likable cyberpunk movie and a weird little horror short that certainly warrants a watch if you like horror and weirdness.  And given my recent watching, the next batch are turning out fairly solidly as well.  Though, with a considerable amount of actual writing stuff going on, it may be a fair while until I get to talk about them...

[Other posts in this interminable series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, Part 6, Part 8Part 9Part 10Part 11Part 12Part 13Part 14Part 15Part 16Part 17Part 18Part 19Part 20Part 21Part 22Part 23Part 24Part 25Part 26 Part 27Part 28Part 29Part 30Part 31Part 32Part 33Part 34Part 35Part 36Part 37]

* It is, however, a rather disappointing and obvious sequel that fails to entirely capitalize on its pedigree, let alone its brilliantly silly naming convention.  Also, Juliette Lewis actually manages to be a worse Armitage than Elizabeth Berkley, which is just plain weird.

** There's an awful pun there, and I think I just inadvertently made it.

Monday, 7 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: The Door Beyond the Water

The Door Beyond the Water is at its core another early tale, from the period when I was very much in the thrall of Lovecraft and Poe and Machen and weird tales in general - a time that provided the backbone and impetus for what would eventually end up being The Sign in the Moonlight and Other Stories.  Like The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma, it first appeared in a brief-lived and little-read market called The Willows way back when, and like The Facts in the Case of Algernon Whisper's Karma it got something of an overhaul before I felt it was ready to stand alongside more recent work.

In the case of The Door Beyond the Water, however, that work had already been done beforehand, and had been a whole lot more comprehensive.  I originally rewrote it when I was approached by editor Eric Guignard to provide a story for his anthology Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations.  (Eric, incidentally, would publish another story from the collection, Prisoner of Peace, in his next anthology.)  I had nothing new to offer him, and as a compromise I offered to revise an older piece under a new title, with the understanding that it would be a substantial enough revision to actually warrant the change of name.  Eric was okay with that, so I went back to the story - it was The Gate in the Jungle at that point - with an excuse to really set about tearing it down and building it back up again, and the goal of having something by the end that I'd feel comfortable setting alongside the kind of stuff I was producing then.

It worked out well, all told.  I was fond of the original, but I think the revision brought the things I liked about it into much sharper perspective.  I said in an earlier one of these posts that the impetus for a lot of these stories to was to write slantwise homages, pieces that stayed true to the weird tales of the early decades of the twentieth century whilst finding new ways into them, in some cases ones that maybe weren't quite so alienating to a modern sensibility.  In that sense, The Door Beyond the Water was me locking horns with the assumptions about race, and about civilization, that are prevalent in so much work from the period.  It's a tale of that classic Victorian educated white chap coming into a situation he doesn't even slightly understand and making one unholy mess of things, basically - and also, now that I think, an excuse for my to play around with some of the shamanism stuff that came out of studying Elizabethan witchcraft for my post-grad degree.

Here, anyway, is an extract:
The message came to him in dreams, before the second moon of the season: A man comes to free the imprisoned one. Nothing more than that.
But for Cha Né - who was shaman, who saw beneath the mystery of things - that sentence was enough to darken his heart with fear such as he'd never known.
The next night he confronted his spirit-guide with the inevitable questions.  "Who is this man who comes? Is he of the mountain people? Is he from the hollow tribe?"  It hardly seemed possible, unless the ancient truces had been somehow corrupted.  "I must know, Shanoctoc."
The feathered guide had hesitated long before answering.  "He is Montague Evans.  He is not of the three tribes, nor of the lands between the water and the mountains.  He is a white man, of the tribe of Henry Johnson.  He will arrive before the third moon."
Then Cha Né’s guide, his one companion in the Otherworld, sank into the waters of the lake - was swallowed amidst shivering liquid tendrils.
Cha Né knew, without knowing how, that it was the last time they would ever meet.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Sign in the Moonlight: Prisoner of Peace

A hard one to talk about, this, since I don't want to give too much away about a tale that I suspect is best encountered with as little preliminary knowledge as possible.  I suppose I can safely say that it's a ghost story - the second in the collection after The Burning Room - and that it was originally published in the Stoker-award-winning anthology After Death, before being podcast soon after in Pseudopod.  And I perhaps shouldn't say, but will anyway, that it's my favourite of the horror stories I've written.

The reason for that is that it falls most closely in line with my own tastes in horror.  Ever since I played the video game Silent Hill 2, for me one of the masterpieces of the genre in any medium, I'd been wanting to try and capture in my own work some of what I'd found most effective there: the combination of overt violence and grotesqueness with more complex psychological subtexts and the studied build-up of a profound, almost instinctive sense of dread.   There's something fascinating for me in the way that the Silent Hill games make the deepest fears of their protagonists tangible in subtle and yet often immensely twisted ways.  They're hellscapes of the mind, basically, and while that isn't exactly an original notion, I've never seen it done quite so effectively as here.

The impulse to try and incorporate that into a horror story had been with me for a long while, but I never found the right project for it, and I certainly didn't want to end up with something that was only an imitation or pastiche.  Nor was I particularly inclined to include the blood-and-gore side of things, it was definitely more the puzzle box aspect that appealed to me, the idea of a story in which the external trappings only make sense once you come to appreciate the character's interior world.

I don't know how much those Silent Hill genes show through in Prisoner of Peace; it's a more subdued affair, sad rather than horrifying, not even really intended to be frightening or disgusting but just to try and creep inside the head and scratch away there.  It deals in tragedies both individual and societal, and the ultimate horror it finds is an all too real one from the past, one that's always haunted me as a nadir of what we as a species are capable of.

And on that note, here's a sample:
There is a tapping coming from the next room.  
I call it a room, but I know it is a cell - just as I know that my room is a cell.  The tapping is irregular, arrhythmic, and I think it is the sound of someone trying to communicate.  A pipe runs along the bottom of my wall.  If I were to strike it, just so, with the heel of a sandal or a stone perhaps, it would make a noise like the one from the next room.
But I have no sandal, no stone, nothing to rap against the pipe.  Nor do I know what the noises mean, if they mean anything at all.  If the tapping is a message, it is one I cannot understand, can't reciprocate.
I realise now that I have heard the noise before - and sometimes, other noises too.  On occasions, there is a sound of heavy, booted footsteps.  They approach from the near distance, pass my door, continue a little way and then return, recede, approach again.
It can only be someone patrolling the corridor, and I think sometimes to call out.  There are many things I could say, many questions I could ask.  The footsteps remind me that there was a time when food was left.  A bowl was placed inside my door, and later, removed.  There was rice, always, and less commonly, thin vegetable stew, a little fish.
It seems a very long time since I tasted any of these things.
Perhaps this is why I never call out.  Perhaps it is why the sounds from the neighbouring cell fill me with nothing but unease.  What frightens me - more than tapping or the echo of pacing footsteps - is the thought of the answers I might receive.