Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Trail of Cthulhu

August Derleth The Trail of Cthulhu (1962)
Yes, I know. My to-be-read pile is organised and tackled in a specific order so as to keep pace where I have two or more titles by the same author, or of a fairly specific type. This is done so as to avoid my coming to the end of the pile and finding I've obliged myself to read, for example, seven A.E. van Vogt novels in a row. Therefore having come to the Lovecraftian segment of the established sequence, it was a toss-up between this or the third Grafton paperback collection of shorts by the man himself. I ended up going for Derleth, experiencing a vague sensation of having reached H.P. sauce saturation point in recent months, what with Grant Morrison and Alan Moore borrowing bits of the mythology, that horrible shite I read by Colin Wilson, and whatever that last fucking awful anthology was; in addition to which, I coincidentally dip my toe into a certain internet forum, and there's the one particular complete knob and self-declared Lovecraft expert holding forth as usual, and apparently holding forth in a belief of anyone caring what he thinks about anything, penning his missives as ever in the tone of a nineteenth century librarian whilst revealing the emotional development of a fifteen-year old. This month, having given the matter some consideration, our boy has come to the view that the quintessential distillate of Lovecraft's genius is to be found not in any of the space octopus tales, but in one of the others of which I can't remember the name - something scary happens, I think some bloke inherits a house and there's a ghost or something like that...

The thing that irritates the living shit out of me is that whilst Howie undoubtedly had a vivid turn of phrase - providing you ignore the stinkers - we're not talking fucking Schopenhauer here. We're not actually talking anything you could term even moderately philosophical without looking a bit of a berk. We're talking about a man who wrote scary stories about creepy uncles with books of magic spells, and who wrote these scary stories on paper and published them in magazines because Scooby Doo hadn't yet been invented so his traipsing along to Hanna-Barbera with a proposal would have been a complete waste of time. Of course, none of this is specifically Lovecraft's fault, and as always the worst element of any cultural success story will usually be its stupid fucking fans.

To return to the point, August Derleth, so I reasoned, was a capable writer, albeit one perhaps lacking the poetry of Lovecraft, from whom he otherwise took much inspiration. For all his failings, Derleth was unambiguously in the business of keeping his readers happy and therefore might, by some terms, be seen as attempting to save the Cthulhu mythos from its creator, at least in so much as that he occasionally managed to write a story not involving some guileless tosspot inheriting a book of magic spells from a creepy uncle whom no-one liked to talk about.

So, The Trail of Cthulhu it was...

The Trail of Cthulhu is five individual short stories sharing sufficient characters and themes as to work as a novel when read in the order given here, more or less. This distinguishes it from Lovecraft's writing in so much as H.P. never wrote anything of this length. The problem is that although The Trail of Cthulhu works as a novel, it isn't necessarily a good novel. Its narrative comprises the somewhat predictable accounts of five individuals who just had to write it all down, all of whom meet up in the final tale as a sort of Cthulhubusters task force. The pattern of events is already familiar: there's this scary thing and it's probably just my imagination, but - fuck me - it wasn't just my imagination after all, and wow, that really is pretty damn scary, over and over with the traditional cock-obvious clues screaming at the reader left, right, and centre.

You are alive, and yet I definitely saw you die. How unusual!

The customary list of forbidden books are checked in and out of the library at Miskatonic University with such frequency as to call into question just how forbidden they could really be, and we get the familiar itinerary of unpronounceables repeated over and over, seasoned with some new faces which Derleth added so as to emphasise his good squelchy guys versus bad squelchy guys interpretation of the Lovecraftian playset. This wouldn't be so bad for someone reading these stories in isolation, but welded together as a single novel, the repetition becomes tiresome. On the other hand, one major criticism of Derleth's version of Lovecraft has been, as I understand it, with regard to his efforts to superimpose a variant of the traditional Christian morality tale; although in his favour, that particular drum is beaten fairly softly here, and the comparison of Cthulhu's imprisonment to Satan's expulsion from heaven works quite well, I thought.

The only elements to which I had any strong objection - as opposed to just wondering whether or not I should skip a page or two - were Derleth's attempts to ground the mythos in legitimate archaeological and anthropological references, essentially doing a von Däniken, something of which H.P. was equally guilty. Here we get frequent name-checks for the cultures of Easter Island, the Marquesas group, the Tlingit, and Mesoamerican and Inca civilisations. Such references work fine if you don't really know anything about the cultures involved and tend to think well it's all the bleedin' same innit, bleedin' octopus gods and dancing around in the nuddy, all the bleedin' same innit, but strikes me as very lazy.

Tlaloc the Mexican Rain God, for one example, may indeed appear to have a face full of tentacles and certain aquatic associations, except those are stylised snakes rather than tentacles, and part of a pictogram signifying rain. So his image is actually a written representation more akin to an elaborate Chinese character than necessarily a depiction of anything physical; but such cultures are poorly understood and hence fair game for interpretation and appropriation, which is why no post-Lovecraftian tale ever added Lloyd George to the pantheon of elder Gods or tried to suggest that Mansfield Park was a forbidden text describing nameless horrors, at least not so far as I am aware.

The Trail of Cthulhu is readable but a bit stupid in places. On the other hand I've read much worse, and significantly I've read much worse by H.P. Lovecraft himself.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Erasing Sherlock

Kelly Hale Erasing Sherlock (2006)
Nosing around on the internet in search of Erasing Sherlock reviews for the sake of comparing notes in the event of there being some major detail of the narrative which I've somehow missed, I encounter:

The way Holmes is described I could not avoid imagining our modern day Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, in the role - although the novel might have been written with Jeremy Brett in mind as Sherlock was not even a twinkle in the eyes of Moffat/Gatiss at the time.

I suppose I'm not really entitled to my usual upswell of wrath given that I tend to picture Sherlock Holmes as Basil Rathbone - or Peter Cook at a pinch - and that while I'm almost certain I enjoyed whichever book it was I read as a kid, I more recently found the same author's The Lost World borderline abominable; but nevertheless, I like to think of Erasing Sherlock as a novel rather than as something which didn't quite get the funding to become a brill television show; and as for fucking Cucumber, give me fucking strength, and once you've given me fucking strength kindly fucking fuck the fuck off.

...and yes, that sound you heard was indeed my sneering.

Anyway, Erasing Sherlock began life as a time travelling Holmes novel which won an award of some kind, and justifiably so, and was then reborn as a Faction Paradox novel without, so I gather, too much tweaking given how it was already in that same thematic ball park. The story is roughly an expansion of that detail of quantum theory in which the act of observation changes that which is observed. Here we have a time travelling student observing the great detective as part of her doctorate, changing the nature of that which is observed specifically by shagging him; which turns out to be part of some larger experiment investigating whether or not it is possible to change the past, in this case by erasing the historical figure of Sherlock Homes, hence the title.

As may be apparent from the above, this all works on a number of layers. At one end of the scale we have the notion that the events of the narrative reduce Holmes to a merely fictional character - just as he is in the universe in which this novel was written - which might also be deemed to pertain to the macrocosm of how an author relates to her characters. One interpretation might be that Kelly Hale specifically wished to relate to this character in sexual terms, thus I suppose presenting further commentary as an aspect of fan fiction; although this isn't something which is made explicit in the text, and Holmes is far from an idealised fantasy figure, but it's there if you want to look for it. That said, I tend to dislike supposedly erotic fiction usually because it bears more relation to the clichés of advertising than to that which it purports to evoke, but Kelly Hale writes it really well, focussing on the texture and poetry rather than peddling typically gushing crescendos. Thankfully this isn't Fifty Shades of Sherlock; and yes, I'm sure some loser has already engaged themselves with that particular pointless exercise, and there will be the inevitable dreamy picture of sodding Cucumber on the cover of the resulting shitty Amazon eBook.

If I have any criticism of Erasing Sherlock, it is only that it feels at times a little like characters waiting around for the massive explosions of the final chapter, in the meantime busying themselves with the intrigue of picking over various plot details to see what happens; but having said that, I've a feeling this may be more to do with me than the novel, given that I'm not predisposed towards an interest in either Holmes or detective fiction as a genre, and it has been quite difficult to read some of this one with all sorts of feline drama going on at the other end of the bedroom - Kirby producing massive lung-destroying human-size turds in the litter tray, Tony trying to roger the kittens and all sorts of stuff you don't really need to know about. The salient points are that Erasing Sherlock is a wonderfully observed and rendered piece of fiction which manages to do at least a little more than just have adventures and solve puzzles, and as everyone keeps saying, Kelly Hale should be a household name on the strength of the quality of her prose; and if you're incapable of reading this one without thinking ooh Cucumber, maybe you should stick to your beloved Jason of Star Command DVDs, or just cease to exist altogether. Either would be acceptable.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

Philip K. Dick We Can Remember It For You Wholesale (1987)
Well, there it is: the fifth and final collection of his short stories, so that's it for me and Dick's fiction, excepting re-readings, and unless he smuggled anything more explicitly imaginary into The Exegesis - which I've still been too scared to read - and ruling out the possibility of anyone finding the lost manuscript of Return to Lilliput, or of Dick himself writing a few new ones.

The stories here date from 1963 up until the man's death, so a much greater span of years is encompassed than in all four previous collections put together, and the dates suggest the author reaching a saturation point past which he no longer felt so inclined to hammer out the short stories at quite such a rate, presumably preferring to concentrate on novel length material. The quality of the stories reflects this to some extent, with a few of these more or less amounting to generic Dick-by-numbers in comparison with later efforts. For example, flicking back to Holy Quarrel to look up the names, I still can't quite remember what it was actually about beyond that I didn't enjoy it much, in contrast with previously unpublished material such as the wonderful Cadbury, the Beaver Who Lacked wherein Dick examines his own convoluted attitude towards women and relationships through a sort of theologically ponderous written equivalent to funny animal comics; and on the subject of self-aware literature, I'd swear that The Day Mr. Computer Fell out its Tree is Dick taking the piss out of his own style and themes, possibly during a moment of boredom.

There are some true greats here - The War with the Fnools, A Game of Unchance and Not By Its Cover - but of those which failed to appear in much earlier short story collections such as The Golden Man and The Turning Wheel, I can sort of see why they didn't make the cut on previous occasions; and if you squint at just the right moment you can actually see what looks like Phil beginning to tire of the short form, and this is most apparent when comparing those stories which either summarised or else ended up embedded in novels with those obliged to deliver all their major ideas in one twenty page dollop.

Without bothering to go back and re-read my own reviews, I have an impression of this being the most uneven of these five collections, with a few fairly dull efforts and Phil's not-particularly-welcome views on abortion to sour the picture; but the lows are nicely balanced by a few of his absolute absurdist best, and everyone is entitled to fire off a few blanks every now and then.

Lordy - what a great writer he really was.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Supreme: The Return

Alan Moore & about a million others Supreme: The Return (2000)
I'm not sure there's much I can say about this collection that I haven't already said about its predecessor, but anyway...

Supreme is the creation of Rob Liefeld, the man who effectively drove me away from caped escapades in the early nineties, either with the mighty colonic force of his scratchy art, or else its unfortunate and baleful influence on everyone else. Supreme was Liefeld's version of Superman with the serial numbers filed off, publication enabled by his own Image Comics imprint when whoever was paying his wage at Marvel refused to cave in to the demands of an artist who always made Wolverine look like he was in the middle of doing a poo, and a pretty fucking tough poo at that. I presume Liefeld recruited Alan Moore because of his ability to do word stuff good just as Moore received a hefty phone bill or something, but whatever the case, this was the result. Moore did what he could, at least managing to produce something which reads as though he enjoyed writing it, but if Sexton Ming has taught us anything it is that you can't polish a turd.

The stories are fine such as they are, and the heavily stylised flashbacks to a supposed prehistory of Supreme in the style of Simon, Kirby and others are ruthlessly well-observed, and the jokes are funny, particularly the running gag of how close our boy comes to realising that he's a character in a comic book; but at heart it's still Taco Bell regardless of how it's served, and it fails to nourish in the same way as Alan Moore's work usually does. The pastiche flashbacks to golden age Supreme worked well enough in the first collection, and even seemed to have purpose beyond nostalgic chuckles, but here they were starting to get on my tits.

Yes - a dog wearing a cape; we get it, for fuck's sake...

Funnily enough, I picked up a copy of the Supreme comic from Liefeld's original run at some flea market a few months ago, mainly out of curiosity and because despite being a near mint foil-stamped collector's edition published over two decades earlier, it cost just twenty-five cents. It's about as horrible as I imagined it would be - page after page of caped sides o' beef grimacing at each other with faces made of hernias and ruptured sphincters, frowning generals muttering darkly about imperatives and national security, and the emotional complexity of one of the more retarded Kiss albums. Oddly though, I can see the appeal, and even being an el Camino driving po' mullet-having uncle to Moore's more sophisticated version, the crappier Supreme seems more honest. Liefeld may be a terrible artist, but his art is immediately recognisable and is absolutely consistent. It's a guy trying his best, regardless of his best being pure shite, as opposed to Alan Moore and Rick Veitch slumming it so as to pay off a few bills. More oddly, this means the Liefeld version has a quality which is lost in Moore's mish-mash of genres and in-jokes, much as I would rather read the latter than the former.

I wouldn't say The Return is actually crap so much as that somehow it just ain't right. It's certainly worth a look, but the publisher's suggestion that it rivals Moore's own Watchmen for fresh perspective on the genre strongly suggests that of those responsible, only the bearded one had the first fucking clue about what he was actually doing here.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Pilgrim's Progress

John Bunyan The Pilgrim's Progress (1684)
This book is among the greatest literary masterpieces in the world, writes Dr. Ronald Johnson of something called Accelerated Christian Education. Few books so captivate attention while provoking insight into Christian character.

Bunyan was an English puritan living in an age when it was pretty tough being an English puritan, and thus was he locked up for continuing to preach his beliefs. Whilst in the stripy hole he wrote principally so as to keep himself from going batty, to keep himself on the straight and narrow:

...but yet I do not think
To show all the world my pen and ink
In such a mode; I only thought to make
I knew not what: nor did I undertake
Thereby to please my neighbour: no, not I;
I did it my own self to gratify.

Neither did I but vacant seasons spend
In this my scribble; nor did I intend
But to divert myself in doing this
From worser thoughts which make me do amiss.

Amongst those works written during his years of porridge we find The Pilgrim's Progress, describing the allegorical journey of a Christian man travelling to the kingdom of Heaven with emphasis on that which might impede his getting there. The tone of The Pilgrim's Progress is determined by Bunyan's desire for absolute clarity of meaning. Whilst the work may well have been written entirely for his own pleasure, he left no room for misinterpretation by any third party:

Wouldst thou read riddles and their explanation?
Or else be drowned in thy contemplation?
Dost thou love picking meat? Or wouldst thou see
A man i' the clouds and hear him speak to thee?

Whilst this speaks well of Bunyan's desire to communicate, I'm really not sure what it does for the book as a supposed literary masterpiece, an honour which I would argue applies more to its cultural impact than to the actual content. The principal character of part one is named Christian, and those he encounters on his journey tend to be identified with a similarly heavy hand, and so much so that it's kind of on a level with a seventeenth century Dora the Explorer as our boy meets Boastful and Selfish and turns to the imaginary camera to ask, I wonder what sort of fellows these will be? Perhaps they shall be fine and generous companions who speak with much modesty, before blinking a couple of times and then repeating the sentence.

It's not that the story is in any sense badly written, but with every possible outcome of each interaction a foregone conclusion based upon the relative and well-advertised piety of those involved, you kind of know what's going to happen, which kind of sucks some of the fun out of reading. I appreciate that it was 1684, but I'm not a complete stranger to literature of that general period, and Cervantes, Aphra Behn, Rabelais, and Cyrano de Bergerac all managed considerably better, or at least gave their readers something to chew over with a bit more substance than that of a rusk. I know Gulliver's Travels came a couple of decades later, but the contrast between the two makes this one read as though written by an idiot.

Clearly it wasn't written by an idiot given that simplicity was Bunyan's stated intention, and it remains a fairly engaging read for something in which everything is spelled out in ten foot high block capitals. As for the insight into Christian character promised by the nice man from Accelerated Christian Education, the insight is mostly on the level of how a Christian man likes God, enjoys praying and being honest, but he certainly does not appreciate the devil, temptation, or telling lies.

'Do you like the devil?,' we might ask him.

'No sir, I do not!' he would probably reply in strident tones.

Who would have fucking thunk it, eh?

Then again, Accelerated Christian Education is an organisation of biblically literalist nutcases responsible for schoolbooks claiming that the Loch Ness monster can be explained by Noah having a few baby dinosaurs on the ark. It makes perfect sense that Bunyan's masterpiece should hold such appeal for fundamentalist types with their profound distrust of grey areas, complex arguments and facts.

Accordingly, our Christian leaves a wife and four children in order to seek God, and yet nowhere is it suggested that this abandonment of his family could signify any degree of negligence, vanity, or self-interest, because he's doing it for the right reasons.

'Indeed, Cain hated his brother, because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous; and if thy wife and children have been offended with thee for this, they thereby show themselves to be implacable to good, and thou hast delivered thy soul from their blood.'

Well, that's all sorted then. As is typical of the fundamentalist, good deeds don't count for shit unless you're a fully paid-up club member and subscriber to the right periodicals. The nicest guy in the world is still going to hell if he fails to abase himself before the proper authorities for no reason given other than that it's all a joyous mystery and that this is simply the right way; and it's true because it's true, as Christian points out to the cunningly named Ignorance:

But thou camest not in at the Wicket-gate that is at the head of this way; thou camest in hither through that same crooked lane, and therefore I fear, however thou mayest think of thyself, when the reckoning day shall come, thou wilt have laid to thy charge that thou art a thief and a robber, instead of getting admittance into the city.

Christian arrives in God's city at the end of the first book - the allegory specifically being that his pilgrimage represents acceptance of Christ and all that good stuff. Christian's abandoned and presumably less righteous wife and four children get to redeem themselves in book two, which initially kicks off as a repeat of book one as they come to their senses and decide to follow in Christian's shoes. On the way they are joined by characters with names such as Mercy and Great-Heart, then are eventually relegated to non-speaking roles in their own tale as their manly companions and protectors stand around pontificating upon biblical lore and how it is easier for camels to pass through the eyes of needles. I suppose a more active role in the exchange of opinions might have interfered with said wife's admirable womanly meekness or something. I wouldn't say that failing the Bechdel test or unnecessary sneering at Catholics - as occurs in a couple of instances - determines a piece of fiction as necessarily worthless, but forgetting to include a fucking story really doesn't help.

John Bunyan's great talent as a writer can be found in the fact that he actually made a fairly engaging read of this tale for all its flaws, its repetitive and sanctimonious observations, and its seemingly regarding the reader as a simpleton. The Pilgrim's Progress is an historically important book, just not a very good one.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Zenith: Phase One & Two

Grant Morrison & Steve Yeowell
Zenith: Phase One (1987) Zenith: Phase Two (1988)

I was going to do just the first of these two, but you know how it is once you've started and you can't have just one. Plus I've been fiending for this shit since 1994 when I found myself obliged to make a choice between my large collection of 2000AD comics and regular access to a lady's vagina.

Zenith was Grant Morrison breaking into mainstream comics, or at least breaking into mainstream comics which people read. If you look closely you will notice that it's essentially his take on Brendan McCarthy's Paradax mashed up with Alan Moore's version of Marvelman with a load of Moorcock chucked in for good measure. This isn't a criticism, only an acknowledgement of Zenith wearing its influences on its sleeve, at least for most of Phase One. This is because the methodology of Morrison's writing is, at its most basic, tantamount to that thing you do when expecting a visitor, so you have a quick think about which book will create the strongest impression as your guest arrives, and you turn in your swivel chair to face them with the world's least convincing chuckle.

'Oh hello! You'll have to excuse me - I was just brushing up on my Kierkegaard.'

This is why so much of
Morrison's dialogue, particularly early on in his career, is often so arch and affected and so damn teenage. It's portentous horror movie straplines as conversation.

'Are you Gideon Stargrave?

'As often as possible, but you know how it is these days.'

Possibly the funniest example of this that I've yet seen was an issue of the Thundercats comic in which Morrison was busily getting the Moore-by-numbers thing out of his system with first person narrative captions and traumatic back story as substitute for character.

My name is Liono. I am ten years old, followed by junior Liono being bummed flat by one of the older kittens at Thundercat school or something of that sort, closing with the aspirationally chilling Yeowell zoom-in on tear-stained whiskers, and again My name is Liono. I am ten years old...

This isn't a bad thing, but it's a bit comical if you don't get it right and then go on record stating that you taught Alan Moore everything he knew in an autobiography reading much like that of Spawny Get from Viz comic.

As I shagged my massively titted supermodel girlfriend on that pile of sweets, I suddenly had a great idea for a bold new direction for Batman. So I turned to my famous friend John Andrew, the drummer from Kingmaker, and I said...

Anyway, I was more easily pleased in 1987 when Zenith first turned up in the pages of 2000AD, but it still seemed like a huge, bold statement in comparison with the rest of the comic. Phase One still works for me, but mainly because I remember how great it looked first time around. Here in 2012, I can't help but notice how thin it actually is, but the disparity is not so pronounced as to diminish the pleasure of reading it once again. Phase One barely has a story at all, but gets away with it through having just the right book in its hand as it turns to greet you with studied nonchalance, and a genuinely wonderful sense of timing; plus all the jokes still work, which is sort of the same thing. Surprisingly Yeowell's artwork now looks quite ropey, all those big wide faces with their tiny, piggy eyes, but he makes up for it with deft use of shadow; and by the time we come to Phase Two he's absolutely nailed it. The same goes for the writing, which by Phase Two has built up just enough mythology to make things interesting when it all falls apart; and by Phase Two I'd remembered just what made Zenith so great.

As with a lot of Morrison's work, it's all about surface - much like Zenith himself - and here with surface presenting a thoroughly convincing illusion of depth. It seems telling that our boy now regards Zenith as having been a mere job, just one path trodden on his road to stardom. Zenith, having originated in 2000AD, was Morrison doing the sort of nutty shit he does best with some IPC gorilla stood at his side forcing him to behave, perhaps giving him licks every time a Crowley quote looked like it was turning into one of those dreary, meaningless essays. The Invisibles was, by some definition, Zenith without the restraints which saved it from its own author and thus made it readable.

In just two collected volumes this story goes from something that could almost have been published in one of those horrible eighties fanzines with two seventeen year-old nobodies from Chichester presenting their own extraordinarily po-faced take on the X-Men, to something which is at least as loud and exciting as the first Sex Pistols album. We meet a superhero who is essentially a twat, and another who is probably Michael Heseltine with a heart, and Lovecraft gets raked over with a little more vigour than usual, and Morrison reveals his true genius in explaining exactly why a real Superman couldn't end world hunger, war, or any of that stuff - part fourteen of Phase Two, in case you're interested; and all of this whilst casually waving its arse at Margaret Thatcher. Warts and all, Zenith is still fucking brilliant.