Horror Archive

6

Cabin in the Woods: Did I Spoil It?

Last weekend, I found myself at a Halloween party. The conversation turned to movies, as it so often does when a bunch of people who don’t really know each other are crammed into a 750 sq. foot condo. Therein, a friend of mine recommended The Cabin in the Woods to another person – let’s call him…Marcus. My friend’s recommendation came along the lines of, “I can’t tell you what it’s about, because that would spoil the movie, but trust me, it is amazing.”

Granted, I was a few four drinks into the night, but my friend’s overview didn’t seem to do the movie justice. How could anybody make a meaningful recommendation of a movie, any movie, without telling a person what it’s about? Thus did I gracefully insert swagger my way into the conversation and offer my two cents prolonged diatribe.

“No, we can tell you what it’s about. Cabin in the Woods is a meta-movie that subverts the 80s archetype of bad things happening when people leave the safe, civilizing confines of the city and return to the primal power of nature. Everything that happens to the young, sexy coeds in the cabin is being scripted from a control room. It’s not a simple survival movie, so much as it is a discussion on sacrificing the few for the benefit of the many. It’s a movie that wants you, as the viewer, to look at the concept of the greater good and ask yourself what you would be willing to forfeit in its name.”

That’s about when I saw the jaws dropping.

“Wow, Adam, you drunk bastard, you just ruined the movie.”

“I most certainly did not.”

“You gave away the whole thing.”

“Bullshit, the control room is revealed within the movie’s first ten minutes. Hell, it’s in the trailers. This is not me telling you,” turning my attention back to Marcus, “that Bruce Willis is a ghost, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, or Soylent Green is people. The strength of The Cabin in the Woods is found in its ability to mobilize and dissect slasher flicks tropes – quietly patting itself on its back as it says, ‘aren’t we clever,’ as Joss Whedon is so apt to do – all the while assembling an accessible moral quandary. You’re going to feel terrible about yourself at the end of the movie, one way or another, because that’s the nature of its Kobayashi Maru. Also, Kirk cheated at the Kobyashi Maru.”

Spoilers or no, the argument sold Marcus on watching Cabin in the Woods, so mission accomplished there. Here’s my question to you, internet, did I actually spoil the movie?

I submit myself for your judgement.


1

SFContario 4: The Aftermath – Part 1: On Genre and Entry-Level Fiction

Another SFContario has come and gone. Rather than bore everyone who wasn’t at the affair with every detail of my weekend, I’m going to use this post to reflect on two of my panels, both of which left me thinking about their discussion long after the session ended.

I had the pleasure of joining Sandra Kasturi, David Nickle, and Matt Moore for a discussion on politics and horror. The scope of this panel included both film and literature, leaving us with a lot to cover in our hour. After a few opening comments the discussion shifted, as it so often does when horror comes into the equation, into the divergent definitions of horror. Such discussions often leave me with more questions than answers and a considerably longer reading list.

As I said on the panel, I tend to classify horror, in either film or literature, as something that subverts the expectations of normality. One examples I cited is Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. I view Contagion as a study in hubris, and a reminder that despite all the trappings of modernity and civility, humanity is not safe. We can be undone by things invisible and largely (i.e. without very specific scientific training) unknowable beyond their visible effects on a person. An additional qualification for Contagion as horror is in the inevitability of a viral outbreak as well as the psychological burden that comes with said knowledge before, during, and after the event. .

Sandra offered that horror requires a supernatural element. In that light Contagion, for want of a supernatural element, is best seen as a thriller. A good point. I wonder though, what happens if a story like Contagion’s is set in a pre-germ theory world? It probably becomes historical fiction and the point is moot. Assuming it doesn’t, I’ll ask what is more important to horror’s formula: the reader’s definition of supernatural or one that is most relevant to the story and characters at hand?

A panel called “Strength of Character” left me mulling over a seemingly tangential comment from Derek Künsken. During this panel I paraphrased this article, which frames John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War as entry-level science fiction. Derek quickly suggested authors like Ken Liu and Aliette de Bodard should serve as an introduction to science fiction for intelligent readers – or words to that effect. Ever the consummate moderator, Derek didn’t let the panel stray too far into this discussion on entry-level fiction.

Though I’ve only read a single short story from Liu and de Bodard, both of which I reviewed as part of a larger anthologies, there’s no doubting the impressive social commentary that drives their fiction. So why not use writers of their pedigree as gateways into the genre? Liu and de Bodard make perfect sense as ambassadors for the genre. At the same time, I’d also recommend de Bodard, Liu, and Scalzi, as excellent choices for those well versed in science fiction. This begs the question, what exactly is entry-level science fiction? After spending an hour in parking lot grade traffic on the way home from the convention, I decided that the term itself is problematic and I’m going to stop using it except when dismantling it.

As a descriptor, entry-level is almost always used as an antecedent for the word job. I don’t think I’ll get too much dissent if I generalize entry-level jobs as tedious and rudimentary. Even though the aforementioned writers have wildly different styles and approaches to storytelling, nobody in their right mind should see their work as anything less than sophisticated and well measured. Moreover, all three authors meet the essential litmus test for good literature, regardless of genre, in exploring complex contemporary issues through prose fiction. Do we really want to bandy about terms like entry-level when it might evoke comparisons to professional donkey work? I think not.

James Marshall once told me that “literary fiction” is little more than a synonym for quality fiction. Both science fiction writers and readers alike know that the label of genre is often heaped upon our body of work as a brand of inferiority. Calling something entry-level science fiction, even if the intent is benign, might further marginalize science fiction at a time when it ought to be held on even footing with lit fic.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where I’ll end this post. Even though I have a few more things to say about the weekend, they are hardly so time sensitive that I feel the need to impose upon the attention span of my readers.

To be continued…


0

The Sims and its Failure as Phantasmagoria

One of the more interesting aspects of studying and teaching history is discovering common cultural memes between past and present. For example, Aristophanes’ The Clouds is a 2400 year old Athenian play that lampoons higher education. The play’s criticisms of Socrates’ “thinkery” are similar to contemporary charges of impracticality inherent to an education in the social sciences and humanities.

A more recent example is the invention of the Phantasmagoria machine/show. From the 17th to the 19th century, phantasmagoria practitioners shows used light, shadow, and narrative to produce an other-worldly experience for otherwise bored urbanites. The popularity of the phantasmagoria show increased as technology advanced into the 19th century. Therein, the city dwellers of post-Enlightenment Europe, a time period which embodies the triumph of science and engineering over superstition, were hungry for something that took them beyond the alienating nature of the urban space.

Though the phantasmagoria machine has since given way to gothic literature, film, television, and interactive media, I think the essential desire to remove one’s self from a known world, albeit temporarily, is as pervasive now as it was centuries ago. For a time horror movies were the ultimate realization of the phantasmagoria show. Film offered a communal experience of witnessing something so far removed from the mainstream that its very idea was unsettling. Masterpieces like The Exorcist even managed to capture the primal subject matter of early phantasmagoria shows and gothic literature.

Film, however, was and largely remains passive and impersonal. Modern movies are edited to suit as wide an audience as possible. They are also inherently less engaging than a phantasmagoria show as the horror isn’t happening to the viewer, as was the case in the 19th century shows. The movie audience is merely a witness, safely removed from the events on screen. Video games and interactive media took a step to address that fundamental disconnect.

I became aware of this distinction, though on a very rudimentary level, the first time I played Final Fantasy. Where other games gave me an established hero as an avatar, Final Fantasy was about a martial artist named Adam and three of his friends. A few years later I played the original X-Com: Enemy Unknown. Once again I engaged with the (probably) impossible concept of aliens invading the Earth. In naming a soldier after myself, I was able to process events and emotions theretofore unknown to me. I didn’t see an archetypal tough guy reduced to panic when his comrade – named after my ninth grade crush – was shot dead. I saw Adam Shaftoe panic, drop his gun, and turn tail.

Fallout, Pokemon, Mass Effect, Wing Commander, all of these games explored some level of transcendent effect through personal engagement with a narrative, either scripted or internally constructed. A nerdy white kid from the suburbs could feel second-hand emotions and concepts that were otherwise incongruous with a safe upbringing in the developed world.

This is one of the reasons why I will always make the case that some – not all, defiantly not all – video games should be treated as art. If a video game meets a means test of being didactic, allegorical, narrative, or evocative, then there’s good reason to explore its artistic value. Which brings us to The Sims.

The Sims is the antithesis of the phantasmagorical. It is the video game equivalent of Sunday school, a place where preconceived notions of orthodoxy are reinforced through repetition and rote learning. The Sims doesn’t want you to explore. Rather, it wants you to play the game in a very specific way, doing very specific things at very specific times. If you deviate from this checklist, which just so happens to be rooted in the most stunningly boring vision of 1950s American suburban propriety, you lose.

The Sims is Lee Carvello’s Putting Challenge.

 

I hate The Sims.

This hatred stems from the fact that The Sims presents itself as the ultimate opportunity for an otherworldly experience: create a new version of yourself and see what happens. Yet this life is defined within the strict boundaries of getting a job, buying a house, filling it with material junk, mating with a person of the opposite gender, and then dying of old age, home invasion, or abject stupidity. Could a game be more bereft of creativity? Could something be more pointless in its execution? The Sims is the embodiment of the alienating modern/post-modern life that people turned to phantasmagorical experiences to escape.

The game is so obnoxiously officious in its adherence to the expectations of “life” that I killed my Sim-simulacra out of sheer malice (and envy). Sim-Adam had a three bedroom house, a wife, cars, and was rapidly progressing through a career within a functional meritocracy. At the same time, real Adam was working in a call centre after finishing a Master’s degree – wherein various employers told him he had no employable skills – living in a basement apartment, and dating his laptop. Sim-Adam had to die.

So it came to pass that one night when Sim-Adam was sleeping in his king sized bed, I walled him into his room. He cried out for food. He begged to go to the bathroom before repeatedly soiling himself. He cried in despair while I drank a Laker Honey Brown, the cheapest and therefore only beer I could afford at the time, waiting for him to die. He looked up and shouted, “save me” and I whispered, “no.”

Was it murder or suicide? Were it either I would make a case for The Sims as a phantasmagorical experience. But no, I was guilty of subverting the spirit of the game, and it was apt to punish me for my transgression. Sim-Adam’s wife, Aeryn Sun-Shaftoe, soon refused to do anything but cry. Her career suffered. She began eating nothing but take-out. Attempts to hook her up with a new neighbour, John Crichton, failed. The game wanted me to witness the inevitable and wholly predictable consequences of my poor stewardship over Sim-Adam.

In the years since that fateful game, The Sims has only grown more tedious. A post-recession economy has transformed the idea of getting a job, climbing the ladder, and buying a house in which one can die into a modern myth. Under that lens The Sims is nothing but nostalgia for bygone days. There is no lesson to be found in it. It is absent narrative save for whatever milquetoast and utterly normal trappings a player chooses to tack on to their character’s day job as an actuary. The Sims, and other “life simulators,” turn their nose up to the artistic potential of the medium in favour of occupying a player’s time with tasks they could otherwise do in their alienating everyday life.

Despite this reality, The Sims managed to sell millions of copies and garner no short supply of positive critical reviews. It ushered in a prolific (and painful) body of work in casual/social gaming. Thus do I conclude with a question: can casual games/life simulators create a transcendent experience akin to the phantasmagoria show? Is there something otherworldly in farming potatoes? Or will they only ever amount to glorified distractions?


0

Under the Dome is Doomed to Failure

At the time of this post Under the Dome is two episodes old. For that reason, I acknowledge that I may be doing the series something of an injustice in judging it after eighty-some minutes of story. But the more I think about this series’ current trajectory, the more I suspect its inevitable destination is cancellation and obscurity.

Critics better than I have already pointed out there’s a lack of momentum to the story of Chester’s Mill. The first two episodes seemed to lurch from one plot point to the next without providing the audience a tangible conflict beyond “Hey, it sure would be nice to get out from under this dome.”

At first, I suspected the meta-story would manifest as a reverse Battlestar Galactica. The tension between Duke and Big Jim certainly seemed a suitable breeding ground for a discussion on elected vs appointed power. Then Duke died, and now we’re on to a propane conspiracy. Fine, whatever. I’m not here to judge on those grounds. But it, along with the same-sex parents, psycho kidnapper, and mysterious stranger, speaks to the larger problem with this series: it’s a one trick pony that’s eventually going to collapse under its own potential cleverness.

Even though life in Chester’s Mill is continuing thanks to the aforementioned natural gas intrigue, eventually the cop who shot the dome in episode two is going to be proven correct. Food will run scarce. The gas will get used up. Wells will run dry. Septic tanks will fill to bursting. When that day comes, nobody is going to remember the time the town came together to put out the fire at Duke’s house. They’ll be too busy bartering the virginity of their daughters for a glass of water and a hunk of their dead neighbour’s leg meat. Oddly enough, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Though it does raise the question of where a series can go from there. How can an audience relate to characters once their situation has reduced them to an atavistic state? And would CBS really have the nerve to pull the trigger on such a horrifying story?

This is why stories that essentially strand people on an island are such fickle creatures. Battlestar Galactica could safely play with this idea only through the contrivance of jumping the fleet. There was always another planet around the corner which would provide much needed food, water, fuel, or democracy. The writing could flirt with mankind’s inner darkness without ever committing to a total breakdown of social order.

Under the Dome doesn’t have such a luxury. The fact that a character has gone to the trouble of making explicit Chester’s Mill’s ticking death clock forces the writing to address this inevitable conflict. A protracted delay or outright failure to do so will make the story seem either lazy or stupid. Neither option is amenable to crafting a successful piece of television.

Then there’s the dome, itself. Though it’s a clever concept, the writers are turning it into a double edged sword without a hilt. On the one hand, you can never ever breach the dome. If the people of Chester’s Mill find a way out of captivity, the story is over. On the other hand if somebody finds their way into the town, be it aliens, the army, or Santa Claus, the series becomes Lost reborn and the audience will throw out the bullshit flag. Thus, the second Brian K. Vaughan and Neal Baer decide to swing this sword with any force they’re likely going to cut off their own hands, leaving the series unable to do anything but bleed to death for the audience’s amusement.

What to do in the meantime? Seemingly bore the audience to tears with endless ontological arguments/speculation about the dome. Who did this? Why are they doing this? Surely there must be a reason for this. Perhaps we can use science mumbo jumbo to figure out what’s going on. Except that if we get a cause that meets a means test of plausibility, it sets the story on a single track whereby it has to follow those clues to a natural end point where either A) Everybody dies or B) some/all people get out.

What then should the audience expect going forward with this series? Wanking, and lots of it. Amid the red herrings and hand wringing on the part of the central players, there’s probably going to be a doubling down on the short-term interpersonal conflicts that are the stuff of bad soap operas. Meanwhile Big Jim, Deputy Esquivel, and…Barbie (If I feel stupid typing that name I can only imagine how Mike Vogel feels saying it) can’t ignore the dome, because what sensible person would in their situation? Again, they can’t ever do anything to remove the dome, or cross a thin red line of knowledge about the dome, lest the series blow its load on one of the two aforementioned resolutions.

Perhaps this is why King’s novels are largely adapted for film and mini-series: his stories have endings. Television, unlike literature and film, can go on well past a natural conclusion so long as the ratings are there. If the first two episodes of Under the Dome are any indication of what’s to come, then this series should have been done in the style of The Stand rather than the slowly paced low-concept tedium that we’re seeing now.


1

Why it’s Hard to Make Horror for TV (or “Why I stopped watching The Walking Dead”)

Since Adam is down with the aftermath of Cthulhu summoning his minions on the Earth a headache, he’s given me the reins to The Page of Reviews and been kind enough to let me promote my Aurora-nominated short story “Delta Pi”.

And by mentioning it, I’ve promoted it enough.

On to other things. Namely: why it’s so hard to find good horror on TV these days. Under the Dome has a shot, but so far it’s giving me more of a science fiction vibe. I’m intrigued by the concept (having not read the book) and appreciate that it juggled about a dozen major speaking roles, but don’t find myself emotionally engaged.

There’s only a few genres that seek to evoke emotion as their modi operandi—horror, comedy and romance/erotica. And horror is unique in trying to provoke a negative emotion. But trying to evoke an emotion means understanding and exploiting a cultural zeitgeist.

Once upon a time, we were horrified by the slaughter or corruption of the innocent by monsters. And by “we” I mean the upper class who had the means to afford books and the education to read them. But literacy spread and those just scraping by were not so easily shocked since what the upper class considered horrific was everyday life for most people. Especially as the horrors of wars during the late 19th and early 20th century spread through newspapers, radio, and finally television.

During this time, Lovecraft changed the game by giving us monsters of abstraction. Maybe we could deal with the monstrosity of Cthulu’s octopus head, but not our inability to comprehend the alien geometry of R’lyeh. R’lyeh told us that the human mind is not all-powerful and some things will remain unknowable. In an age of rapid scientific discovery, this ran counter to the prevailing mood.

But into the late 20th century we have come to accept that few of us will truly understand advanced concepts like string theory, the Higgs boson, or heat death of the universe. But since they don’t touch on our everyday life, there’s no harm in not being able to explain a world of 26 dimensions.

So what is left to horrify us? How about changes to our everyday life.

Imagine this: I hold a baseball out at arm’s length and let it go. Rather than falling, it remains stationary in mid-air. In the movies, you’d react with curiosity or maybe surprised laughter. In reality, you would be horrified. Why? Because we have certain assumptions about the world, like gravity.

This is where true horror comes into the equation. As a society, we have become immune to many things and few things horrify us. We have to look to the extremes—think Hostel—to be horrified. Or, we could look to the perversion of what we take for granted.

Which is what I wanted to invoke in “Delta Pi”. (You caught me, I’m back to it, but will move on soon.) I wanted to write a horror story that challenged a basic assumption we have about the world. As someone who did very well in math class, I tried to imagine what would happen if Pi changed. In finding that I could not, I knew I had a horror story that could get under your skin my challenging a fundamental assumption.

Owing to Lovecraft’s use of bizarre math, I gave the story Lovecraftian overtones (but without the language): the true nature of the universe is more complex than we can imagine. But I also gave the story a main character you could identify with. In the end, it plays on one of the most horrific of themes: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

But there’s still another threshold of horror.

I’m reading slush for the upcoming anthology Fearful Symmetries, edited by Ellen Datlow. In reading, I’ve run across many interpretations of what writers feel horror is. The stories that have really grabbed me are the ones that hint at more going on underneath the main story. A sense of disquiet and dread. I don’t want to go into specifics since we are still deciding what stories to accept, but in generalities one story that grabbed me was of a man who may or may not be a killer. He spends a lot of time in his workshop, but what he is working on is never revealed. That unknown—which I assume is intentional—is chilling. Or a man, who realizes his life’s work will ultimately ruin other people, either decides to fight against the forces that have made him or he kills himself… and we don’t know which.

So, one could say the lack of certainty—something we all feel in our busy lives—is a key ingredient in modern horror.

That’s why Stephen King is the “master of horror”. You could argue others have better monsters or bloodier scenes, but what makes King a master is his characterization. When a character we care about is disappointed, disfigured or killed, we feel it. In other words, their everyday world, which we can identify with since it is so like ours, is turned upside down, which is horrifying.

Which brings us (finally) to The Walking Dead.

As someone at the World Horror Convention in New Orleans said, “I watched it until it became 9-0-2-1-oh, zombies!” Character conflict in any drama is essential, but can become familiar. Mad Men, The Wire and Breaking Bad all do it with heartbreaking effect, but they are not horror.

What made Season One so effective was the resistance of characters in accepting their new world. Since we were following Rick, who slept through the zombie uprising, his transformation was our transformation.

But in Season Two, Rick had adjusted, so we the viewer have adjusted. So the show had to up its game by focusing on character conflict. The trouble is all the characters had become hard in reaction to the world they live in. Only Carol remained emotionally vulnerable, but after Sofia’s death she became hard as well. Now hard-boiled characters can be intriguing, but what makes Batman, Boba Fett, Sarah Connor, and The Man With No Name so intriguing is they have the dispassionate strength needed to survive in an unforgiving world. When everyone is bad-ass, we have no one to emotionally identify with. This is a world without morals and therefore can’t be horrified. (Now, what makes Daryl the fan favourite is not that he’d bad ass; it’s that he’s someone who finally found his moral centre, just like Sawyer on Lost.)

Which is why, finally, I stopped watching The Walking Dead. Rick’s confrontation with the Governor was not good versus evil, but really it was two forms of rationalism. We’re supposed to side with Rick because the Governor is crah-ray-zee, but I think both men have a claim on a reasonable reaction to an unreasonable world. Which is not horror. By taking us too far away from our everyday world, it is impossible to identify with the characters. One could argue The Walking Dead is still a thriller, which is true, but it’s not horror.

I hope if you go and read “Delta Pi”, you’ll find it has that horrifying effect.


3

Book Review: The Anthology of European SF

In the introduction to the Anthology of European SF, editors Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes outline their intention to use an exploration of European identity as the framework for an anthology of science fiction. Specifically, they assert that “Europe has a political union and a common market, but not a cultural common market or a publishing common market.” As a result, the editors are keen to showcase this collection as a means of mobilizing Europe’s native talent for a European audience while also bringing it to the world at large.

As a result the Anthology of European SF is rather broad in its approach to the genre. For example, Ian R. MacLeod’s The Dead Orchards opens the book with a story that lands at the intersection of fantasy, post-apocalyptic story-telling, and horror. Jetse de Vries’ Transcendent Express stands out as classic “hard” SF, and is perhaps one of the best stories of the anthology for the effort. There’s even a bit of Lovecraftian horror, in both style and form, from Liviu Radu’s Digits Are Cold, Numbers Are Warm. Even without the safety net of an explicit theme or trope to hold the anthology together, a great many of these stories are strong enough to stand on their own. Generally those tales which fall short of the mark do so in terms of failing to present a measurable conflict; the strength of their prose is undeniable, but from my point of view a story must do more than build a world and end on a note of introspection.

Honour Roll

Starsong by Aliette de Bodard

As a rule, I tend to avoid recognizing reprints in this section of my anthology reviews. I think I better serve my readers by highlighting new works of fiction, rather than dwelling on stories which have already received an initial publication credit, and likely critical praise, outside of the anthology. I’m happily breaking this rule for Starsong.

The first few hundred words of Starsong almost put me off the story. The prose is elegant but somewhat difficult to parse. Further adding to the story’s opaque nature is a structure which shifts between ethereal and temporal narratives. Whatever confusion I initially felt, however, was put aside as the two layers effortlessly folded into each other. By the end of my first read through, I couldn’t believe I had even considered writing off the write-off. Mea culpa.

Starsong grounds its inner/outer universe dialogues in terms of a double story about humanity’s relationship to technology and its relationship to itself. It does so through focusing on a young woman’s marginalization from society at large. While this motif is nothing new within science fiction, Starsong pulls at the threads of this vast tapestry in a very compelling way. Ideas of racism and alienation are teased as to make the reader wonder if the “other” is indeed a literal alien. This was the hook for me. The finisher was when the story made me wonder why I thought the former question was somehow a relevant distinction.

For its ability to blend contemporary issues of racism, race loyalty, and xenophobia within a far-future human civilization, Starsong is not a story to be missed.

Repeat Performances by Carmelo Rafala

It is a rare and wonderful thing to see a story which is so much bigger than the few thousand words it comprises. Using near-future Mexico as a setting, Repeat Performances invokes elements of Latin American culture as a base for the story’s extended metaphors – FYI: de Bodard’s story does the same thing. How interesting that this part of the world prove such a fertile ground for European storytelling.

The conflict at hand is driven by an attempt to reclaim agency and reunite family within a world of exploitative flesh traders and post-humans who have symbiotic relationships with alien parasites. I believe this to be something of an intentional commentary in that all of the story’s post-humans are all children who have willingly embraced having their bodies changed at the hands of an extraterrestrial McGuffin. Where children are curious enough to forfeit part of their humanity to become something else, the adults only seem capable of recognizing an opportunity to appropriate something for their own ends.

Though this was my first exposure to Rafala’s writing, I think I would gladly read a novel set within this world.

News from a Dwarf Universe by Dănuţ Ungureanu

A very simple concept drives News from a Dwarf Universe: that of a machine capable of shrinking anything and then returning said object to its original size. Using a documentarian’s voice, Ungureanu shows how this technology could usher in a golden age for humanity, at least until a significant percentage of the population gets stuck in their shrunk down state. In that light, it is hard not to look at this story as a parable on the dangers of becoming dependent upon a technology which is not fully understood.

Beyond that, this piece is commendable for its efficiency in storytelling. It’s one thing to read a work of fiction where the author says “what if” with a new piece of technology. Witnessing Ungureanu introduce said technology only to remove it, and in turn showing the ways in which this upsets the apple cart, all while working within the confines of short fiction is no small (no pun intended) achievement.

While News from a Dwarf Universe is something of a lesson in hubris, it’s also an optimistic, if cautionary, tale on a sustainable lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

If the goals of this anthology were to A) expose readers to quality content from the European science fiction community and B) promote ISF Magazine and Europa SF at large, then I would say mission accomplished. The majority of the stories in this anthology are quite good, and a few are absolutely great. Those that failed to deliver, for me at least, did so because actual story proved secondary to style, remarkable as the latter may have been. Overall, the Anthology of European SF is a solid read and a promise of great things to come from its editors and parent publisher.

The Anthology of European SF

Edited by Cristian Tamaş and Roberto Mendes

Published by ISF Magazine and Europa SF


0

Retro Movie Review: Ghosts of Mars

Over the weekend I found myself on a bit of a John Carpenter kick. Saturday afternoon I watched 1982’s The Thing. The next day I took on 1988’s They Live. Then on Tuesday, over an extended lunch break, I watched Carpenter’s 2001 turd Ghosts of Mars.

Twelve years ago, I walked out of the theatre half way through the film’s second act. In following years, I never once tried to watch it again. While seeing the movie from start to finish makes it no less of a turd in my eyes, it does furnish an opportunity to see the myriad of small failings which, if addressed, could have made for a decent experience.

Don’t Telegraph the Ending

Ghosts of Mars stands as a primer on narrative futility. The main thrust of the story emerges out of a series of flashbacks, the first of which has the movie’s protagonist, Lt. Melanie Ballard (Natasha Henstridge), riding alone into Mars’ capital city. When the next flashback introduces the audience to Henstridge’s team of Keystone Martian cops, it’s pretty obvious that they are all going to die.

Call me old fashioned, but I thought the point of a horror movie was to leave the audience wondering who, if anybody, is going to survive the experience. Watching Henstridge read her lines to a board of inquiry (little of what she does in this movie approaches acting) ruins any potential tension. Yet with even the slightest application of a red pen this problem vanishes into the ether.

Bad Casting

In 2001 Natasha Henstridge’s claim to fame was taking her clothes off in Species and Species 2 – paging Seth MacFarlane. By comparison Pam Greer, who plays Henstridge’s commanding officer, Commander Helena Braddock, survived 70s Blacksploitation to become Jackie Brown, a role which netted Greer Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations. Based on resumes alone, who should be the kick-ass hero, and who should be the expendable meat sack that dies to mark the ending of the first act? This movie would instantly be better with Pam Greer as Lt. Ballard.

Throw Out the Weird Crypto-Fascist Feminist Lesbian Utopia

Okay, bear with me on this one because the movie spends so much time shoving the “Martian matriarchy” up its own ass I couldn’t quite figure out what, if any, significance/subtext it is supposed to convey. Even though Mars is an Earth colony, subject to the enigmatic “cartels” (Don’t ask, I don’t know), there’s been a gender role swap during the colonization. This sociological Freaky Friday turns “the Man” into “the Woman”, as elucidated by Ice Cube, who is a special kind of terrible in this movie.

The matriarchal kink also enables a creepy sexual politics in the movie’s first act. Therein Commander Braddock makes a pass at Lt. Ballard; the direct implication is that Ballard will only make Captain after consummating a sexual liaison with her CO. Moreover, heterosexuals on Mars are referred to as “breeders.” A pre-Transporter Jason Statham further suggests that straight people are a rare sort on Mars, so why not have some casual sex?

Let the record show that I have no problem with a movie subverting hetero-normative power structures. But what’s the point in rubbing the audience’s nose in something alienating only to do nothing with it in the long run? What possible reason is there to make Pam Greer play a lesbian sexual predator when she dies twenty-five minutes later? Ditch the weirdness in favour of narrative clarity or meaningful character motivations, and, once again, the movie would heal itself.

Kill the Red Shirts

This is just storytelling 101. Seventy-five minutes into a ninety-five minute movie sees the two redshirts among the Martian police cadre still alive and kicking. What do they do during that time? Mostly hang about like glorified extras. I couldn’t even tell you the two character’s names without looking it up on IMDB. In a survival-horror movie, there’s no reason for Privates Expendable and Cannon Fodder to still be alive.

Killing characters = tension.

Tension = audience engagement.

Audience engagement = good reviews.

QED.

Change the Name to Ghosts of Utah

When I think “Mars”, I don’t think trains, mining towns, and federal marshals rounding up prisoners to stand trial for murder; for these are the trappings of a Western. For want of space suits, actual physical Martians, or even a laser pistol, there’s no good reason for this movie to be set on Mars. It should be set in a mining town in 1885. I would pay real money to see a movie about shotgun and pistol armed US Marshals having to deal with ancient ghosts creating a zombie army. The best part: we can still have Pam Greer as Lt. Kick Ass without breaking history – Ada Carnutt was a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Oklahoma Territory in 1893. With a few set and costume changes the movie becomes something requiring a dram of suspension of disbelief instead of a metric ton.

In the end, what is Ghosts of Mars if not an ineffective alien movie, masquerading as a zombie movie, wearing all the trappings of a Western? But imagine what it could have been with just a few changes. It is teeming with potential for a modern Western six years before 3:10 to Yuma’s remake hit the big screen. Meanwhile, this much better hypothetical movie could have maintained all the Carpenter trademarked horror tropes while working within the conventions of a Western. Perhaps then Carpenter would not have gone into self-imposed directorial exile for nearly a decade.


0

Adam Versus Steam Greenlight, Volume 3: The Cat Lady, Yuri Nation, and Lords of Xulima

For your consideration, noir horror, epic fantasy, and a dog who just wants to be loved on this month’s edition of Adam Versus Steam Greenlight. Presenting the candidates: The Cat Lady, Yuri Nation, and Lords of Xulima.

For anybody not familiar with the process, this is a monthly feature where I pull the first three games out of my Steam Greenlight queue, answering the core question of Steam Greenlight, “Would you buy this game if it appeared on Steam?”

Let’s jump right in.

The Cat Lady by Harvester Games

Click here for The Cat Lady’s Steam Greenlight Page.

As a completed and currently available noir point and click adventure game, The Cat Lady is looking to make the jump to digital distribution on Steam.

Here’s the description.

The Cat Lady is a new, gory horror adventure game not for the faint hearted from designer R. Michalski, the creator of successful adventure game Downfall. A gripping story, pumping soundtrack, high-resolution artwork and voice acting will engross you on your journey through the strange and often terrifying world of The Cat Lady.

Susan Ashworth, known in her neighbourhood as the crazy Cat Lady, is a lonely 40-year old on the verge of suicide. She has no family, no friends and no hope for a better future.

One day she discovers that five strangers will come along and change everything… But those five, “The Parasites”, are also the most ruthless, deranged and cold-blooded bunch of psychopaths the city has ever known. They will stop at nothing to hurt Susan. Unless, she hurts them first…

Despite a lack of Oxford commas in the copy, the premise alone sounds fascinating. After watching the trailer, which goes on for about three minutes longer than is necessary to sell me on the title, my only complaint is that I’m not quite sure I would call all the voice acting “high resolution”. The female voice actor, presumably the eponymous Cat Lady, is reminiscent of Kate Beckinsale. However some of the male actors sound a little bit too forced. Of course, this is just a trailer. Perhaps the delivery is better when everything is in its proper context.

Also, I sincerely hope the audio balance in the game is an order of magnitude better than what we see in the trailer.

 

Verdict: It has been a long time since I’ve played a good horror game on the PC. For roughly twelve dollars (as priced on Desura) I would be willing to roll the dice on The Cat Lady.

Click here to head over to The Cat Lady’s website for more details.

Yuri Nation by Serotonin Studios

Click here for Yuri Nation’s Steam Greenlight page.

If a person were to say the name of this game as one word, they would soon discover the M.O. of this particular entry. Expected to release in the fourth quarter of 2013, Yuri Nation is…well it’s a game about peeing on things.

Maybe I’ll just go straight to the video on this one.

 

Though the developers talk about drawing inspiration from the likes of Paperboy, Grand Theft Auto, and Mario Kart – all games which I have enjoyed at some point in my life – I really don’t think I’m sold on Yuri Nation’s core concept. I mean, you play as a dog intent to piss on as much stuff as possible as part of a turf war with other dogs. It’s about one diabetic toddler away from being a pitch for a TLC program.

I suppose if I was twelve I might be able to appreciate this game on some level. Perhaps I may recommend it to my friend, Chris, as a present for his five-year-old. Though I can’t see his wife approving of the core mechanics any more than I do.

Verdict: A resounding, “No.”

But if you manage to find yourself interested in this game, here is its kickstarter page.

Lords of Xulima by Numantian Games

Click here for Lords of Xulima’s Steam Greenlight page.

Finally, we have Lords of Xulima. Expected to release at the end of 2013, this is Numantian Games’ attempt at recapturing the spirit of the late-90s RPG.

Lords of Xulima is an isometric, turn-based, single-player 2D role-playing game. It is set in a mythical lost continent called Xulima where the world makers lived in ancient times. The game features a challenging vast world where you will have to command and create a six characters (sic) party in an epic story between gods and men.

Question: If the game uses an isometric perspective, is it not still presenting a 3D view?

 

I will say that the exposition in the trailer is a little bit much. There even came a point when the flying text shifted voice between a heroic history and an outright personal narration.

Ultimately though, I think there is some potential to this game. If XCOM: Enemy Unknown has demonstrated anything it’s that there is still a market for turn based strategy in today’s gaming world. Assuming the price point on Lords of Xulima peaked at $25, I would probably buy in. Bearing that in mind, my customer and critical expectations for this game will be pretty high. Given an obvious inspiration from the likes of Ultima, Baldur’s Gate, or Planescape: Torment, I would expect Lords of Xulima to get it right on the first try. When standing on the shoulders of giants, there is little margin for error.

Verdict: Tentative yes.

Head over to lordsofxulima.com for more information on the game.

And there we have it. Two thumbs up out of three for this month. Tune in next month when I pull three more games out of the queue and take them apart for your reading pleasure.


4

Book Review: Fear the Abyss

In his introduction to Fear the Abyss, an anthology of dark horror and science fiction from Post Mortem Press, editor Eric Beebe asks, “What is more frightening than an unending unknown?” To answer this question, twenty-two authors present a variety of narrative insights into the relationship between curiosity’s call and the anxieties of discovery.

While these stories are well suited to the editor’s thematic mandate of exploring the science, knowledge, and fear, I believe another concept unites these stories. Almost all the fiction within Fear the Abyss probes the actual act of perception, be it visual, psychic, or something else, as both a reaction to and a means of comprehending the unknown. The tones of pessimism, nihilism, and, in a few cases, optimism which materialize out of these stories speak not simply to the construction of an imagined unknown, but how readily identifiable characters process that which is alien to them. Though the range of sub-genres is broad, from outright body horror to far-future science fiction, the experience is quite cohesive.

Honour Roll

Extraction by Jessica McHugh

Certain stories live on in a person’s memory long after they have been read. Extraction is not one of those stories. Rather, Extraction is the story that gives nightmares to all the other stories which keep a person up at night. Beginning with the phrase “I can’t stop jerking off at work,” what follows is an evocative piece of short fiction, dwelling in the cracks between body horror and contemporary science fiction.

It naturally follows that McHugh’s text is somewhat challenging to read. In exploring a literal form of human alienation, the story risks evoking a particularly sour taste from the reader. For me, the experience prompted equal measures of repulsion and fascination, akin to the first time I watched Hellraiser. Throughout the text, motifs of desire and addiction collide in what is quite rightly a reproductive grotesquery. Unsettling as the imagery may be, it’s not exploitative so much as an attempt to relocate the reader from a safe conceptual realm into a place where any pop culture preconceptions of the fantastic are stripped away. The remnant is a vision of reality which frames the great “other” as something genuinely horrifying to behold.

That Which Does Not Kill You by Matt Moore

Matt Moore offers a near-future war story that blends the best elements of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Though there are some aspects of body horror in the story, its raison d’etre seems to be an inquiry into the consequences of denying agency to its two central characters. A number of interesting questions emerge out of this denial of control. Should we have to confront the horrors of our world if there is an escape at hand? At what point do we accept our circumstances rather than trying to work around them?

There’s also a strong juxtaposition between the characters’ inner conflict and the war going on around them. It’s an almost MASH like quality which sees the grand questions of the war ignored. Instead, the story focuses on the war’s casualties, in both physical and psychological terms. In shining just enough light on battlefield apparati to avoid being bogged down in back story, That Which Does Not Kill You showcases the cheapness of life and death in a war where soldiers are adjuncts to military hardware.

The American by S.C. Hayden

I have been waiting for a story like The American for as long as long as I’ve been genre fiction. To me, there’s nothing more tiring than stories which try to shock me with the battle for Heaven as waged on contemporary Earth. We’ve all seen The Exorcist, and most everything that has followed after that, regardless of medium, has been variations on the theme. Moreover, stories of demonic possession often presume too heavily upon the audience’s ability to be moved by the Judeo-Christian legacy.

The American begins as a deceptively derivative story about demonic possession. And then with one perfectly placed knock-out paragraph, which can not be discussed without moving into the realm of spoiling, it takes a tired trope of Christian pseudo-mysticism and places it firmly within a post-modern context. It’s short, smart, and manages to double down on subversion in a genre niche which is firmly rooted in ignorance and superstition.

Life After Dead by Jeyn Roberts

Anytime a writer does something different with zombies, I’m going to pay attention. Though unique in its own right, there are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road within Life After Dead. Post zombie Vancouver is a bleak and desolate place. The heady thrill of immediate survival, as seen in so many zombie stories/films, has given way to resource scarcity and a profound existential void. The survivors are forced to reconcile their continued existence with the reality that modern city dwellers don’t know how to do anything when it comes to survival in the purest sense of the word.

Now if this story only worked with the above mentioned elements, it would likely still be doing enough to land on my honour roll. The mid-story transformation, however, really makes Life After Dead stand out from the horde. It’s a common enough thing to see a zombie apocalypse survivor putting down an infected loved one; the bio-political struggle between monster and sickie is pretty much standard fare in a post World War Z world. Rather than peeling away another layer of that onion, Roberts’ inverts the format. The result is unexpected and emotionally resonant. A survival narrative morphs into a story about love, and love is rarely handled with such adroit among the undead.

What We Found by Andrew Nienaber

When a writer frames a story around the question “Are we alone,” the answer is almost always yes; I call it the Sagan Doctrine. Answering one of science fiction’s most holy questions with a definitive negative invites not only the wrath of optimistic readers but also opens the door to fundamental questions about the purpose of the narrative itself. Through a survivor’s final words for a future that may never come, Mr. Nienaber imagines the psychological, as well as practical, consequences of terrestrial life as a cosmic accident.

The emerging story is simultaneously a commentary on the ever present isolation and dread of urban life, as well as a thought experiment on humans as creatures of hope. If humanity was confronted with absolute knowledge of our loneliness in the cosmos, would that realisation become a viral meme capable of flaying the humanity out of those who come in contact with it? Could we, as a people who strive to greater and greater heights, cope with a universe beholden unto ourselves? It is a troubling question, but one relevant to a world which pushes the frontiers of astronomy and quantum physics with each passing year.

Honourable Mentions

A Box of Candy by Nelson W. Pyles: A classic ghost tale focused through the lens of Quentin Tarantino style revenge.

Broken Promises by Jamie Lackey: My first thoughts after reading: this is what Prometheus should have been.

The Nostalgiac by Robert Essig: Hitchcock flavoured sci-fi horror focusing on working class characters.

The Bottom Line

Of the twenty-two stories contained within Fear the Abyss, there were only five which didn’t strike some sort of meaningful chord with me. The writers mobilize a broad range of styles and genres to plumb the depths of fear, knowledge, and perception. Would that The Outer Limits were reborn on HBO, freed from the conservatism of network television, I expect its first season would look something like Fear the Abyss.

Fear the Abyss

Edited by: Eric Beebe

Published by: Post Mortem Press


4

Movie Review: The Dead Undead

First of all, I’d like to thank my good friend Amber Porter for suggesting The Dead Undead as a Netflix’s Basement review candidate. It’s such a rare thing to actually feel the minutes of one’s life slipping away, second by painful second. As bad movies go, this one has to be one of the worst. Then again, The Dead Undead is so bad that it becomes a sort of dubious comedy wherein I’m laughing at somebody else’s “hard” “work”. Normally I would feel bad for doing that, not so with this movie.

Still, after about five minutes of watching The Dead Undead one question was at the forefront of my mind; is this porn?

No really, from the outset to at least fifteen minutes in, The Dead Undead has all the hallmarks of porn.

Terrible dialogue – check

A grainy film quality reminiscent of 1978 despite the fact it was made in 2010 – check

Purple lens filter to cheap out on low-light shots – check

The director’s nephew’s garage band producing the soundtrack – check

Awkward “is she legal” partial teenage nudity – double check

Only close camera shots on knees and stomachs during the obligatory horror movie “girl in a shower” scene proved I was not watching porn. At least, not the kind of porn for which the internet is famous.

 

The Dead Undead’s first act is pretty much standard horror fare. Some teens, played by actors in their mid 20s, go away for a (sex romp?) weekend at a hotel. When they arrive, the hotel looks abandoned. Of course, it’s not abandoned. The hotel is some sort of nexus point for an army of zombies.

For a group of teens on a (sex?) romp, the gang brings a surprising amount of firearms with them. Naturally they are unable to repel the undead assault until at the last moment, of the first act, they are saved by the A-Team. Hold on to the Deus ex Machina feeling, kids. It’s the only literary device the writer knows.

Actually, the saviours are not quite the A-Team. There are five of them, and among them is a woman. But they have a van. And holy shit do they fire a lot of guns.

In fact, the entire second act of this movie is the A-Team, and some other guy who seemingly wanders into the plot, shooting guns. If the camera isn’t tight on a gun firing, it’s close on somebody falling down from an implied gun shot. Back and forth, first the slow hammering of an AK-47’s firing mechanism, and then the low budget ludicrous gibs of third rate squib packs exploding on extras. The bodies of the uncredited horde covered in blood as muscle men and a guy who looks like Ron Jeremy fire their big, heavy, powerful guns.

Wait, are we sure this isn’t porn?

Ron Jeremy is too good for this sort of movie, so they got his stand in.

Yeah, it’s not porn. Because it turns out that Ron Jeremy and the rest of the A-Team are all vampires. (It could still be porn) And as for the zombies, well they’re not regular zombies but zombie-vampires. Through fifteen minutes of flashbacks, which serve as miserable attempts to give a little dimension to glorified red shirts, and no less than ten minutes of straight-up narrative info-dumping we learn there was once a town full of vampires. Those vampires were ranchers who fed on cow blood as an alternative to human juice. Everything was great until some mad cow disease broke out and the vamps contracted the zombie virus, which they then spread to normal humans. Once bitten a  ”Zee-Vee” possesses vampire strength and zombie brainlessness.

I can’t believe it cost 1.1 million dollars to make this movie.

It’s pretty obvious that the budget went toward creating low-rent gun porn rather than hiring decent actors, writers, or paying attention to proper lighting. At one point the lighting is so bad that a night scene looks to temporarily shift to day and back to night again. Either that or for the sake of time/budget/insurance/shitty craftsmanship, a day time car crash sequence, which conveniently removed another red shirt character, is inserted into a night scene. Perhaps the creative team hoped nobody would notice.

Either way, I want to know a director looks at their final product, sees something like that, and doesn’t feel so embarrassed as to disown the project with an Alan Smithee credit. Moreover, I want to know how a director looks at the movie’s ultimate scene, a contrived and poorly executed set-up for a sequel, and thinks, “Yeah, a second Dead Undead is almost certain to happen. I should defiantly leave this final scene as it is.” The unashamed ego, the majestic self-delusion, and the abject hubris is enough to choke a cat.

With its “don’t call us vampires” attention to political correctness (the word is night walker), a guy named Aries (Greek myth) who talks about seeing his dead girlfriend in Valhalla (Norse myth), and porntastic gun battles, The Dead Undead is a new low for contemporary movie making. It’s terrible on all counts. Though if you’re looking to satisfy a hunger driven by Schadenfreude then The Dead Undead might be worth a watch. Otherwise stay far away from this picture.

Tune in next week when I review some other movie as part of my stroll through Netflix’s Basement.

The Dead Undead

Directed by: Matthew R. Anderson and Edward Cona

Starring: Luke Goss (Jason Statham’s non-union look alike), Luke LaFontaine (Ron Jeremy’s cousin), and way too many other people who were probably working for college credit.

It is not porn, despite all indications otherwise.