Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

220px-Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterNote that it’s Color out of Space, not The Color out of Space. The H.P. Lovecraft story it’s based on includes the definite article. (Also, Lovecraft used the spelling “colour.”) I’m not sure why they changed it.

Before I talk about this movie, I’d better briefly discuss that Lovecraft story. The plot is this: a meteorite crashes on the property of a New England farmer, and soon, the vegetation and animal life begins to mutate, and the farmer and his family begin to suffer mentally and physically. The culprit is clearly the strange color seeping from the meteor–a color like none ever seen on earth. As Lovecraft’s narrator puts it:

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all. Its texture was glossy, and upon tapping it appeared to promise both brittleness and hollowness.

Eventually, as is often the way in Lovecraft stories, the farmer and his family go mad and die. Witnesses describe seeing the mysterious color shooting into the sky, and the farm is reduced to ashen desolation.

Lovecraft considered the story one of his best. Personally, I think it’s pretty mediocre. It’s a cool idea–imagine, a color no one has ever seen!–but as a story, it’s kind of plodding. The farmer goes out one day and the chickens have mutated. Then the next day, the cows have mutated. Then the next day his son starts feeling ill. And so on. Each time, people wonder, could it possibly have anything to do with that weird meteorite? (Answer: duh.)

Lovecraft wrote the story in 1927, and the framing device is that it’s being told to our narrator by an old man who is one of the few who still remembers the bizarre event, which began in 1882.

The film adaptation places the setting in the present-day. It’s still a remote New England farm, but they have smartphones and internet connections and TV. Also, the family is given a pointless backstory. The mother is a cancer survivor. The eldest son is a pot-smoker. Oddest of all, the daughter is Wiccan, which makes it feel vaguely as if the film is trying to make some sort of moralizing commentary, although it’s not very coherent if it is.

Whenever people adapt Lovecraft stories, they try to flesh out the characters. And unless you’re Audrey Driscoll, that’s usually a bad idea. Lovecraft sort of, um, hated people, so his characters are generally little more than cardboard cut-outs. By his own admission, he didn’t care about human interest elements. I get that this goes against normal screenwriting advice, which is to make people relate to the characters, but it’s better to stick with the flimsy sketches Lovecraft used than to do what this film does: try to make them interesting by giving them random quirks and eccentricities. This made them seem like a bunch of oddballs even before the meteorite strike.

The bigger problem here, though, is the modern setting. In 1882, if a meteorite hit and began to poison the groundwater, you can imagine that the rustics wouldn’t immediately connect the two things. Likewise, you can see that if a malignant extraterrestrial entity began devouring everything on your property, you’d have fewer options for escaping. Even riding into Arkham would mean a long ride on treacherous roads.

In the present-day setting, none of this applies. The film tries to convince us that these people are super-isolated, and that somehow nobody believes this meteorite is worth looking into, and that everybody is so stupid they crowd around the meteor crash site right near the well, and don’t think that maybe that’s a concern, even after they know there is something wrong with the water.

This is two strikes against the movie, but these issues could be overcome. Otherwise, it plays out more or less like Lovecraft’s story: gnawing dread, weird mutations, unfathomable eldritch abominations from unlighted realms in infinite blackness, blah blah blah. The family gradually dies horribly, the farm is reduced to ash, and only our narrator, the surveyor Ward Phillips, is left to tell the tale of the horror from the stars that he witnessed.

But there’s another problem here. The first two strikes were understandable. But now we’re really down to the very core of the issue.

Lovecraft wrote a short story that asks the reader to imagine a color no one has ever seen. Now, that is, of course, impossible. We literally can’t think in those terms. We know the colors that we can see, and imagining another can’t be done. It’s a brain-teaser; trying to think a thought that’s literally unthinkable. It’s not enough to sustain an entire story, in my opinion, but it’s a neat concept.

Do you see the problem now?

This movie ought to have been called The Magenta Lens Filter That Killed Everyone. That’s what happens. We get a bunch of weird hallucinogenic magenta effects, hideous mutants bathed in magenta light, and then eventually it all ends in a magenta-colored explosion of static.

I’m sorry, but that’s not effective. It’s nothing against magenta; any other color would have been just as ineffective. Because it wouldn’t have been a new color. It couldn’t be.

Of all Lovecraft’s stories, this is the one that is by far the least-suited to being adapted for the screen. The idea of a new color is the only thing driving it. Take away that mind-bending premise, and you’re left with a story about some people gradually dying of radiation poisoning.

What really irritates me is that this movie so badly wants to be a film like Annihilation, a 2018 science-fiction/horror film also premised around the concept of a meteorite causing sinister mutations.

The thing is, Annihilation had explanations for why its characters behave the way they do. The main characters are a team of military scientists entering the poisoned zone created by the meteor. First and foremost, they’re doing it because they’re trying to understand the bizarre phenomenon that’s occurring, and second they each have personal psychological reasons for wanting to find answers. They all have solid justifications for being there, and not just running away screaming, which would be most people’s logical reaction.

The plot of Annihilation is structured as a journey. It’s always reminded me a bit of the Fisher King from Arthurian legend, complete with a protagonist who must journey into the dangerous unknown on a quest to heal both themselves as well as the sick land around them. It has an arc to it.

Color out of Space has no arc, no structure. It’s just a lot of weird special effects that gradually get more grotesque. (For the record, Annihilation‘s alien-mutant color palette was also more creative.) There’s no development. Which, to be fair, is also true of Lovecraft’s story, but again, he at least had an interesting idea at the core of it. The film doesn’t.

This film is the first in a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations planned by director Richard Stanley. The next one in the works is The Dunwich Horror. 

Well, hopefully that film will at least be better than the dreadful 1970s version. But Dunwich is another odd choice for an adaptation. In many ways it’s similar to The Colour out of Space–remote New England farmers troubled by blasphemous creatures from the depths of space unimaginable. Yawn.

Why don’t they adapt one of Lovecraft’s good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Haunter of the Dark”? “Nyarlathotep” and “The Hound” are creepy, unique, and evocative–good candidates for cinema. Or just throw a pastiche of Lovecraft ideas together and call it Azathoth. Any of those would be better than this.

John_Quidor_-_The_Headless_Horseman_Pursuing_Ichabod_Crane_-_Google_Art_Project
The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane, by John Quidor (1858)

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a short story, originally published in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. “Geoffrey Crayon” being a pseudonym of Washington Iriving.

It tells the story of Ichabod Crane, a schoolteacher in a region of New York known as Tarrytown in the early 19th-century. He is—if I may cut through the florid 19th-century lingo—kind of a jerk. He’s mean to his students, unless he sees an opportunity of mooching free meals off their mothers or flirting with their older sisters. 

Eventually, Ichabod’s fancy is caught by Katrina Van Tassel, the daughter of the wealthy Baltus Van Tassel. One thing  that’s interesting is that Ichabod seems to be interested in her largely for a wealth—whether he has affection or even mere lust for her seems beside the point.

But another of Katrina’s suitors, the large, vigorous, Brom Bones (actually Brom Van Brunt, but his nickname is Brom Bones) does not take kindly to the girl he’d been wooing spending all her time with the awkward schoolmaster. 

These are the three main characters, and they’re all kind of humorously unlikable. Ichabod is a selfish moocher, Katrina is a vapid tease, and Brom is what we would today call a jock frat boy. The main body of the story is more like a sit-com than a ghost story.

The ghost aspect comes from the setting—Tarrytown, a sleepy, dreamy village in the Hudson valley where, Irving tells us:

“…population, manners, and customs remain fixed, while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved. They are like those little nooks of still water which border a rapid stream where we may see the straw and bubble riding quietly at anchor or slowly revolving in their mimic harbor, undisturbed by the rush of the passing current.”

In other words, it’s a place that seems removed from modernity—modernity, in this case, being 1820. Even when Irving wrote the story, “Sleepy Hollow” was hearkening back to an earlier era. No doubt he was targeting those 1790s kids who felt nostalgic for their childhood.

Anyway, things culminate with Ichabod going to a large harvest party at the sprawling Van Tassel farm, where folks swap ghost stories, such as the one about “The woman in white that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow.” And finally, of course, the region’s most popular legend: the story of a ghostly Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannonball in the war, rides forth each night in search of a replacement. 

Ichabod, who is a devoted reader of Cotton Mather, is much troubled by such tales. He leaves the party in a state of agitation, and our narrator suggests that perhaps Katrina has dumped him, although this is ambiguous. At any rate, Ichabod is riding home alone, feeling rather miserable when he encounters a huge, headless rider mounted upon a black horse.

Furiously, Ichabod urges his own horse towards the old church bridge, which, according to a story of the horseman related by Brom Bones, the horseman will not cross. Ichabod successfully manages to cross the bridge and turns just in time to see the horseman hurling his head at him. 

Yes, that’s right—his head. The horseman carries his severed head with him on his saddle. And this is where the story becomes a bit ambiguous because the next day, as the townsfolk investigate Ichabod’s sudden disappearance, they do not find a head at the old church bridge, but do find the shattered remains of a pumpkin. 

The story is deliberately vague after that—while Ichabod is never seen again in Tarrytown, some say he simply moved, and is alive and well in another part of the country. Brom Bones—who, we are told, marries Katrina, looks “exceedingly knowing” whenever anyone brings up the subject of Ichabod, suggesting that perhaps the notorious prankster had simply disguised himself as a headless horsemen, seeking to frighten off his rival.

Of course, the more superstitious residents of the town believe that Crane became a victim of the ghostly Hessian. And after all, since we already have strong reason to think Ichabod was spurned by Katrina at the party, why would Brom have even needed to pull such an elaborate stunt? (Unless he was just adding injury to insult, which would be exactly the kind of move we might expect from Brom.)

This brings me back to what I think is the most curious thing about this story: it plays out like a romantic comedy—or more accurately, one of those anti-romantic comedies where all the characters seem self-absorbed, and the comedy results from the interplay of their attempts to get what they want. In fact, if you take away all the supernatural elements and think of it in modern terms, it’s basically a mean-spirited high-school comedy, where the rich cheerleader and the superstar quarterback screw over the know-it-all nerd.

Which seems like the sort of thing that might actually happen, and indeed almost makes me wonder if the eponymous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” isn’t the thing about the headless ghost at all, but rather the legend of a love triangle that ended in a bizarre prank. In other words, it seems almost like the sort of thing that could have actually happened. Apparently, Irving did know people named “Ichabod Crane” and “Katrina Van Tassel.” Real-life Ichabod Crane was a captain in the army, not a schoolteacher, but real-life Katrina seems to have been more or less like the character in the story, which again makes me wonder how much of this was based on real events or gossip Irving picked up. 

But obviously, it’s the ghost aspect that has made this story famous. And is it ever famous! It’s one of the first and most iconic pieces of post-revolution American literature, and has been adapted many, many times. (More about that later this month.) There are places all over the country named “Sleepy Hollow.” Ichabod and the ghostly Hessian are commemorated on postage stamps and in statuary. Most people know the story even though they never read the original. It’s the quintessential American ghost story.

October is my favorite month, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. If you’re like me, you probably want some good books to read for the season. Here are a few recommendations.

Harvest: A Short Story from the Pumpkin Patch by Jason H. Abbott. This is a fun short story, a little bit spooky and a little bit sweet, about a couple of characters who find they have a lot in common. Here’s my full review.  

The Witch Under the Mountain, by Audrey N. Allison. A father tells his young daughters a bedtime story about an evil witch that proves to be more than just a legend. Fun for all ages, and great artwork too. My full review is here.

The Bone Curse, by Carrie Rubin. The first in Rubin’s Benjamin Oris series, this book is a supernatural medical thriller that forces its protagonist to question whether the horrors he encounters have a rational explanation, or stem from a centuries-old Vodou curse. Serious horror–Stephen King fans will love it. Full review here.

The Almost-Apocalypse of Apple Valley, by Phillip McCollum. Another one for Stephen King fans, this book combines ’80s nostalgia with supernatural horror, as four kids must confront a horrible evil plaguing their town. I’ve not done a full review of this book, but here’s my mini-review: It’s very good.

Jersey Ghost Stories by Erren Michaels and Noah Goats. A collection of ghost legends from the island of Jersey. Some are creepy, some are gruesome, some are poignant, and all are haunting. My full review.

The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll. Book 1 in Driscoll’s splendid reimagining of H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West character, this book tells the story of a scientist obsessed with revivifying the dead, as told by his less gifted, but more moral friend. My full review.

The Raven and Other Tales by Joy V. Spicer. A collection of short stories, some of which are re-imaginings of classic tales and poems. Haunting and evocative–perfect for Autumn. My full review is here and Lydia Schoch’s is here.

If you have other suggestions, please let me know. Happy October! Keep the home jack-o’-lanterns burning.

Ten years ago today, when I was still on Blogger, I welcomed Pat Prescott as a follower. We’ve followed each other ever since, and had many interesting discussions about art, history, literature and politics, and he’s given me invaluable advice on my writing. He also taught me about the Peterloo massacre, the origin of the word “geek,” and introduced me to the wonderful film The Fifth Element.

Pat’s contribution to this blog, in the form of his many comments over the years, is incalculable. Check out his own blog, and his books. (Vander’s Magic Carpet is my personal favorite.)

Here’s to many more, Pat!

Bird of PreyReviewing a sequel is always difficult, because the deeper I get into a series, the more spoilers from previous books there are that I have to be careful not to reveal in summarizing the plot of the latest installment. I won’t dwell too much on plot elements here. Let it suffice to say that Capt. Robbin Nikalishin is sufficiently recovered from the trauma in his past that he embarks on a new chapter in his life, but one that brings with it new challenges.

Taylor’s world-building continues to be first-rate—I particularly enjoyed her depiction of the Martian colony and the delightful term she uses for the Red Planet’s settlers: “humartians.” The sprawling world is rich with plenty of detail and a huge cast of supporting characters.

There are more philosophical asides in this book than in earlier installments—commentary from the narrator on the protagonist’s highly questionable and emotional decision-making. This is more of a romance than the previous ones. Maybe “romance” isn’t quite the term—it’s a true biographical novel, as the subtitle implies. As I was reading it, I realized that in many ways it’s a throwback to an older style of novel: the long, winding sort of tale popular in the Victorian era. Except, of course, set in the 28th century.

There’s a hint of spirituality woven in, too—as in one scene where Nikalishin and a character by the name of Fedaylia High Feather speak with a priest—or “prayst,” as he is called in the Eirish dialect. It’s a powerful scene, and reveals a lot about the characters. I won’t say much about Fedaylia High Feather. How can you resist wanting to meet a character with a name like that for yourself, eh? But I will say this: I think it’s interesting that we are informed she was born on April 30, a date which followers of this blog may recognize as the semi-obscure holiday of Walpurgis night, a sort of Spring equivalent of Halloween. And Nikalishin, of course, was born on Halloween itself. Whether the author had this in mind when choosing these dates, I don’t know, but I thought it was interesting.

As previously, Nikalishin’s pathetic inability to form normal relationships with women continues to be a problem for him, and made me want to shout “Oh, grow up, man!” And to be clear, this is a criticism of the character, not of the writing.  Taylor succeeds quite well in crafting a careful portrait of Nikalishin’s extremely irregular psychology. 

I would love to talk at length about all these peculiarities of Nikalishin’s, as well many other things, but the fact is, more people need to read these books first, and I won’t risk spoiling them for others by discussing details here, when there is a very real chance this may be the first time some readers learn of their existence. The world of The Man Who Found Birds Among The Stars is one that more science fiction lovers need to discover for themselves.

Summer's OverI’ve had this book on my TBR list for some time, but it was Lydia Schoch’s review that motivated me to read it. I wish I hadn’t waited so long—this is a fantastic collection of creepy short stories centered around California amusement parks.

Let me give you an idea of the strange and disturbing worlds the book presents: There are cultists who ride roller coasters. There’s a creepy family of Disney fanatics trailing people around Disneyland. (I may be in the minority here, but I think almost everything about Disney is creepy anyway, so this seemed quite plausible.) A trip to Knott’s Berry Farm and an attraction that transports visitors into an apocalyptic nightmare. A young man whose father takes him to a mysterious section of Seaworld with a distinctly Lovecraftian flavour. And finally, an opening day at Universal Studios that takes immersion in the world of movies to an extreme.

All the stories are short and engaging, with narrators who are instantly interesting and relatable. There is a smattering of typos, but nothing that obscured the meaning or detracted from the story.   

These are exactly the kind of short horror tales I enjoy: weird, mysterious, eerie and—with the exception of the Universal Studios one—not too gory. Think The Twilight Zone and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect. While the stories are short, I felt each one gave me a good sense of who the characters were, while leaving a bit of a mystery to ponder as well.

Highly recommended for fans of weird fiction. And now is the perfect time to read it!

A lot of the art and literature that I enjoy is broadly described as part of “nerd culture.” Science-fiction in general, a number of modern video games, H.P. Lovecraft and his literary ancestors and descendants… all these things are pretty common examples of things that nerds like. But “nerd” has always seemed like a rotten word to me. I understand the logic of defeating an insult by claiming it proudly, but it’s still inherently ugly.

The best you can say about “nerd” is that it isn’t the word “geek,” which I haven’t liked since Pat Prescott told me about the word’s origins in the horrific world of traveling 19th-century freak shows. (Caution: there is some truly disturbing stuff in the Harlan Ellison quote Pat uses to describe a geek.)

The other problem with “nerd” is that it’s come to be synonymous with “enthusiast.” People describe themselves as “word nerds,” “biology nerds,” “computer nerds,” etc. etc. etc. If you wanted to be really specific, you would probably call me a “sci-fi nerd,” although that feels close to redundant.  Pretty much any pursuit that seems even slightly intellectual has fans who describe themselves as “X nerds.”

But “nerd stuff” is a convenient shorthand for describing the things I write about. So if I’m going to complain about it, I’d better have an alternative to propose. I need a way of describing the aesthetic that’s more specific than “nerdy things.” Because the sort of thing I’m talking about here is more than just general sci-fi; it needs a more precise name.

800px-Théophile-Alexandre_Steinlen_-_Tournée_du_Chat_Noir_de_Rodolphe_Salis_(Tour_of_Rodolphe_Salis'_Chat_Noir)_-_Google_Art_Project
Poster for “Le Chat Noir” (1896)

I’ve thought about this a lot, and what I came up with was Techno-Decadentism. Let me explain how I hit on that term. Decadence was the name adopted (again, originally from an insult) by a movement of writers and artists in the late 19th-century. The movement is closely associated with Symbolism and Gothic literature. I first learned about it through Robert W. Chambers’ short story collection, The King in Yellow. The first four stories in the collection are a weird blend of Poe-like Gothic horror and H.G. Wells-ish futurism. Most of the stories in the collection deal with artists living in Paris, one of the hubs of the Decadent movement.

GrandDukeposter
Poster for “The Grand Duke” (1896)

Decadence has a negative connotation, since it means “decay.” And indeed there was a general feeling in Europe at the end of 19th century of pessimism and decline. This feeling has a name: Fin de sièclewhich literally means “end of the century,” but also refers specifically to the cultural mood in late-1800s Europe.

Techno-Decadentist art will also have a similar mood, though modernized. Warren Spector, the creator of the game Deus Ex, called this mood “millennial weirdness.” A fitting term, in more ways than one. It could be my taste for this is partly due to being a member of the millennial generation in the United States. Born in a global hegemon, at a moment of near-total peace and dominance, it may be I feel an instinctive sense that there is nowhere to go but down. But we’ll leave that kind of philosophizing to the Edward Gibbons of the world.

But this does not mean that all Techno-Decadent art is inherently pessimistic, only that it usually takes place in a world “on the brink of social and economic collapse,” as Chris Avellone once described the setting of Knights of the Old Republic II.

Oscar Wilde, one of the most enduring writers from the decadent movement, supposedly said that “Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts.” I can’t find a source for this, but whether he actually said it or not, it’s a good quote. It illustrates a key point about the underlying philosophy of Decadentism, which is very individualistic and unconcerned with themes like Idealism or Romanticism.

That’s the reasoning for the use of Decadentism, but what about Techno?  Well, I was inspired to use the term by the “techno-warlords” in Lorinda Taylor’s The Man Who Found Birds Among the Stars novels. It’s necessary to specify this because most of the art I’m talking about here involves futuristic technologies. Typically, “nerd culture” refers to both sci-fi and traditional fantasy. My own tastes lean much, much more strongly towards sci-fi; especially cyberpunk, dystopias, and retro-futurism. While there can be an overlap in themes with sci-fi, I’d argue that fantasy fiction and art is clearly carrying on the tradition of classic mythology, and therefore deserves to be seen as a distinct artistic movement.

So when anyone asks me if there is a unifying theme to the kinds of things I tend to write about, that’s what I’m going to answer. I assume most people will shrug, say to themselves, “That’s awfully pretentious,” and continue to think of me as a guy who writes about nerd stuff. But at least I’ll have a term that describes my taste and style to my own satisfaction.

All of the above are works and art styles that I associate with Techno-Decadentism

Spellbound SpindleThis fantasy novel begins with a group of magical beings known as “gem elves,” who are betrayed by one of their own, Marlis, who has become a servant of a dark goddess named Gadreena. 

Marlis slays one of the elves, and flees into the mortal world. There, she curses a child. The curse mandates that the child will fall into an endless sleep once they turn 16 years of age and touch an accursed spindle. 

The gem elves provide help to the family that raises the child, but they are unable to track down Marlis, whom they cannot sense in the mortal world. Eventually, sixteen years later, the gem elves and the mortal families are again drawn into conflict with Marlis, who has been hiding in another kingdom, and seducing their king with her dark magic.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, partly because so often it’s very slow-going. Refreshingly, this book, like Spicer’s other novels, moves at a brisk pace and doesn’t bog down. There are perhaps some elements that could have been more fleshed-out, and there is a rather large cast of characters. As Lydia Schoch noted in her review, it’s helpful to make notes of all the characters to keep track.

As with Spicer’s other books, I appreciate the sparse descriptions that allow the reader to imagine the world for themselves. 

My favorite parts were the chapters about Marlis who, though undeniably evil, isn’t simply a cardboard villain, but shows flashes of real emotion that make her understandable, if not exactly sympathetic.

This is a fun read, filled with references to mythology and legend, as well as some good old-fashioned sword and sorcery in the climactic showdown. A good book for anyone who enjoys fantasy.