[How many people still use the term “bleg,” I wonder? Andrew Sullivan used to use the term a lot, but I haven’t seen it lately…]

At the risk of becoming repetitive: please, please, please go read the latest short story by Noah Goats. It’s free to read on his blog.

I love all Noah’s work, as you know, but this is a departure from his usual humorous style. It’s much more in the realm of speculative fiction or even horror, depending how you look at it.

It’s everything I think a short story should be: concisely evocative, moving, and open to multiple interpretations. Noah is turning out great stories at a nearly McCollum-esque pace. I’m hoping he will collect them all in a book at some point. At any rate, his work deserves to be widely-read.

The_Outer_Worlds_cover_artThere’s a moment, maybe a bit more than halfway through the main story arc of The Outer Worlds, that really sums up what the game is all about. On the planet Monarch, there are two rival factions who are fighting for control of the planet. I was acting as intermediary. 

I was trying to decide which side to support, which was difficult because there were people I liked on both. In fact, there was really just one hardliner who seemed to be causing the problem. I wished I could get him out of the picture and bring the two sides together.

And as it turned out, because I’d done a lot of legwork beforehand, and built a good reputation with both sides, I could. The game let me oust him, and put his more practical second-in-command in charge. It was incredibly satisfying, after hours of combat and long, dangerous treks across Monarch, to see two characters who I really liked hammering out their differences at the bargaining table.

There are many moments like this in The Outer Worlds, but this one best illustrates two of the game’s defining qualities. First, there’s the ability to make creative choices to solve problems in unexpected ways, rather than the simple Good/Evil binary we see in many games. And second, there’s the fact that, with a few exceptions, most characters in the game are really likable.

The Outer Worlds begins with your character being roused from cryo sleep aboard a spaceship called the Hope, by an eccentric scientist named Phineas Welles. Welles is recruiting you to fight against the mysterious “Board”—the controlling entity that governs the various corporations in the Halcyon colony.

Shortly after Welles’s rescue, you find yourself stranded on the world of Terra 2, where you have to make your way to the starship Unreliable. At least, that’s what the game pushes you to do. But, not being one to follow directions, I had my character instead make her way to the nearby settlement of Edgewater—a struggling company town. And the game, to its credit, let me do that.

The Spacer’s Choice corporation runs the show in Edgewater, and we soon see a glimpse of how dehumanizing the corporate policies are: before even entering the town, I met a grave-digger asking for help collecting gravesite fees from the populace. This is a good introduction to the politics of the Halcyon colony—the status quo that the outlaw Welles seeks to destroy by reawakening colonists on the Hope.

The advanced promotion for the game had pushed the theme of corporate dystopia pretty hard, so I was expecting that much. What I wasn’t expecting was how skillfully the portrayal is done—nobody, even the town boss in Edgewater, is a caricature. In the beginning, I thought it would be an easy choice between him and the refugees hiding deeper inland, but when it came down to it, both sides are presented as earnest people, struggling to eke out a living on a remote frontier. 

The Outer Worlds has been touted as the spiritual sequel to Fallout: New Vegas, and rightly so. The nuance and well-meaning nature of many of the characters put me in mind of J.E. Sawyer’s New Vegas add-on Honest Hearts—another story about basically good people trapped in a harsh and desolate land that forces them into making hard choices.

The hallmark of Outer Worlds, like New Vegas, is giving the player freedom to do as they wish, and letting the consequences play out accordingly. You can, as the marketing materials say, play it as a psychopath if you want to. But why would you, when it’s infinitely more satisfying to do things like help the struggling colonists, or spend time aiding your companions in overcoming their own personal challenges?

Ellie.jpg
Ellie also rocks.

Whether it’s helping the sweet, shy Parvati overcome her nerves and ask out the woman she loves, fighting side-by-side with the hard-drinking huntress Nyoka to honor the memory of her fallen comrades, or talking the spiritually-troubled Vicar Max out of revenge and into finally finding the inner peace that has eluded him all his life, The Outer Worlds has some of the best companion quests I’ve seen since Knights of the Old Republic II. You can’t romance companions, which initially was a little disappointing—but in a way, that just made their quests that much more satisfying. They weren’t just notches on a virtual bedpost for experience points; they’re well-rounded characters with fully-developed personalities.

Personality is something that The Outer Worlds is brimming with. The graphics have a splendid visual style, from the towns to the corporate advertising plastered everywhere, right down to the loading screens, which even out of the context of the game are retro-futuristic masterpieces:

Loading_Screen_Ad_Terror_ad

Even minor details like quest and weapon names (e.g. the first quest is “Stranger in a Strange Land” and there’s a unique flamethrower named “Montag”) have a sense of science-fiction fun about them.  Everything in this game screams that this is a work of craftsmanship, made by people who cared deeply about it.

Speaking of craftsmanship, the crafting system in this game is wonderful. If you remember my Mass Effect: Andromeda review, you may remember that I said I don’t normally get into crafting, but the mechanics in that game made it fun. The Outer Worlds is like that, too—I would check every shop and vending machine in every town for new weapon mods that I could use to give myself a better arsenal. 

Actually, Mass Effect: Andromeda is a pretty good comparison for Outer Worlds generally. Andromeda was also about building interstellar colonies and forging new homes for humanity in the cosmos. The spirit of optimism and adventure that I noted in my Andromeda review is also present here. The thing Andromeda was unfortunately (and in my opinion, somewhat unfairly) denigrated for was its bugs and technical glitches. I’m pleased to report that there are almost no such issues in Outer Worlds. A couple times, I got stuck between rocks on particularly treacherous terrain, but that could be solved with fast-traveling. The game auto-saves frequently, so even if it had been a problem, there seems little chance of losing much progress.

I have really only two complaints about The Outer Worlds. The first is about one minor quest on Monarch where you have to find someone who disappeared. He was delivering a package to a group of people in the wilderness, and when you track them down, they seem extremely—even excessively—polite, and ask you to stay for dinner.

Now if this is your first time playing an RPG, you might be surprised by what happens next. If, however, you remember the Andale quest from Fallout 3, or the White Glove Society from Fallout: New Vegas, or the inn from Jade Empire, you will not be shocked to learn that the people are, in fact, cannibals, and that the upcoming dinner and the fate that befell the unfortunate delivery person are related.

I’m sorry, but polite people who are secretly cannibals has been done to death in RPGs. I saw it coming a mile away. Now, it’s such a minor thing that I suppose you could say it was a nod to the great RPGs of yesteryear (as those three I listed undoubtedly are) but it felt too rote and by-the-numbers. But perhaps it only seemed so because all the other quests are so original and fun.

The second complaint isn’t even really a complaint; even though it strikes at one of the thematic pillars of the game. It’s more like a philosophical quibble.

As I mentioned above, one of the key parts of the game’s identity is that it’s supposed to be a satire of corporations. The corporations run Halcyon and that’s precisely, the game implies, why it has become such a mess, driven to the very brink of extinction by corporate drones who care more about filling forms, spouting ad copy, and following inane, inhuman policies rather than actually serving the needs of people.

The thing is, none of these flaws are unique to corporations. Any sufficiently large, complicated organization run by human beings will inevitably devolve into a bumbling bureaucracy. Things like governments, universities, and non-profit organizations, after all, are hardly innocent of the flaws that The Outer Worlds mocks in corporations.

In fact, the game seems to almost tacitly admit this by the later stages, when you reach the decadent city of Byzantium, where the wealthiest members of Halcyon society live, gossiping about aetherwave serials and fashion, in a bubble insulated from the horrors of frontier life, like Prince Prospero’s court in The Masque of the Red Death. There are a couple quests where you have to visit the Parcel Delivery service, and in each instance, are given a classic “That’s Not My Department”-style bureaucratic runaround. It’s a hilarious parody of red tape run amok, and one of the greatest examples of satire I’ve ever seen in a game. 

But think about what they’re making fun of here: the post office, a government-run organization. It’s not just capitalism that’s being mocked.

In fact, all the talk about it being a satire of corporations actually understates just how ambitious The Outer Worlds is: they’re not making fun of corporations only, but all big organizations. That’s why it resonates so much—because it pokes fun at the flaws of dysfunctional entities in general, whether they are mega-corporations, late-stage communist governments, or federally-mandated services. 

That’s why I can’t call this a complaint, exactly, because as a satire, it’s extremely good. It’s like the original Deus Ex in how it makes you think about the structures of society itself, and leads you into questioning just how the world around you really works.

I do have a theory about why the game seems so superficially focused on corporations however; although it involves a digression about the inner workings of Obsidian and a lot of speculation on my part. Feel free to skip the following five paragraphs if you don’t care about game industry inside baseball. (Or I should say “tossball,” the main pastime of the Halcyon colony.)

There have been a lot of rumors about Obsidian Entertainment, many of which involve the departure of founding member Chris Avellone. Avellone is a legend in the gaming industry, as the genius behind titles like Planescape: Torment, Knights of the Old Republic II and the Fallout: New Vegas add-ons Dead Money, Old World Blues and Lonesome Road. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest storytellers alive, and his work is a big reason I fell in love with role-playing games.

The details of his departure from Obsidian are difficult to describe, and every account is inherently unverifiable. But it’s safe to say he did not leave on good terms. Avellone has not been shy about discussing his differences with management, nor about his critiques of the game industry generally.

I bring all this up because, if I didn’t know better—that is, if he hadn’t personally confirmed his non-involvement with Outer Worlds many times—I’d have thought it was an Avellone game. It bears so many elements of his signature design style: player choice, reactivity, an irreverent sense of humor… it’s basically the greatest game Chris Avellone never made.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I think it’s an interesting series of events: Avellone has a far-from-amicable departure from Obsidian, after which he vocally expresses his views on management practices in the game industry generally and at Obsidian in particular. Then, a few years later, his fellow game designers make a game about corporate (mis-)management destroying people’s lives. And it’s not just any game, but a game that is clearly the descendant of some of Obsidian (and Avellone’s) greatest triumphs.

Does it mean anything? I don’t know. It may all be just a weird coincidence. In any event, though, this much is known: Avellone remains friendly with Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky, the co-designers of The Outer Worlds, and while it may be a pipe dream, I would love to see him work on DLC for it. The universe of this game is a big one, and it feels like it has room for more stories, especially ones written by MCA himself. Like Phineas Welles, I’ll cling to any hope, however slim.

You may have noticed I’ve made comparisons to lots of other games throughout this review. That’s quite deliberate: The Outer Worlds feels like a culmination. I don’t play games much anymore because they require such a big time investment. But when I saw this game billed as the successor to some of my all-time favorites, I had to give it a shot. And as I played it, I felt like I was experiencing an epic symphony composed of all my most beloved games. 

The smooth, easily-flowing gameplay and careful world design of New Vegas, coupled with a rich art style at times reminiscent of Borderlands, Dishonored, and BioShock, but with its own, unique flavor; the mounting tension of rallying the crew for the attack on the Collectors in Mass Effect 2, combined with the hopeful, pioneering spirit of Mass Effect: Andromeda; the cyberpunk rage against the elite machine of Deus Ex, along with the personal tale of introspection and self-discovery that was Planescape: Torment—all these happy gaming memories came to mind as I journeyed through Halcyon.

And yes: there are echoes of Knights of the Old Republic II; the epic that got me hooked on RPGs in the first place, with its story of the lone exile returning to a galaxy on the brink of collapse, with the choice to let it die or fight to save it—it too came to mind as I played The Outer Worlds. Both games are ultimately about something very simple and very important; something that everybody knows but too few really understand: the fact that our decisions matter; that whether the world we live in thrives or perishes depends on the consequences of people’s choices.

It seems so obvious, and yet so many people seem to forget it. But it’s a point that games as an art form are uniquely equipped to make, because they allow for audience participation to such a profound degree. All the great games demonstrate this truth, and that is why, as it stands on the shoulders of these giants, The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.  

Tank_girl_poster
Sometimes the most fun movies are the ones you stumble across purely by chance. I happened to be flipping through the channels the other night, and this came on. 

It starts with an animated sequence narrated by a woman named Rebecca (Lori Petty) and the post-apocalyptic world she lives in. She tells us about “the Rippers,” a race of underground monsters that menace the struggling population, which has been largely deprived of water ever since a comet struck the earth. The majority of the water is controlled by a corporation called Water & Power, and run by a sadistic psychopath named Kesslee. (Malcolm McDowell)

The film switches to a live action sequence in which Water & Power thugs attack Rebecca’s home, killing her lover and kidnapping a young girl named Sam. The goons also capture Rebecca and torture her in the Water & Power prisons.

Rebecca befriends a fellow prisoner, a jet pilot/mechanic called simply “Jet Girl,” (Naomi Watts) who is repeatedly harassed by Kesslee’s second-in-command. Rebecca and Jet Girl escape after a Ripper attack on Water & Power; Jet Girl in a jet and Rebecca in—of course—a stolen tank, which she soon decorates according to her own punk-y tastes:

Tank and girl

Together, they set out on a quest to find Sam, which takes them first through a surreal brothel, complete with an ensemble performance of a Cole Porter song, and then to the lair of the Rippers themselves. 

The Rippers turn out not to be monsters, but rather a race of genetically engineered human/kangaroo crossbreeds. Created by the army to be the ultimate soldiers, they prove to be a friendly group of eccentrics. Though initially suspicious, they grow to trust Rebecca and Jet Girl, and ultimately they join forces for a final showdown against Kesslee and Water & Power.

I won’t spoil whether the heroes rescue the little girl from the hands of the over-the-top, eminently hate-able bad guy, or whether Jet Girl gets to serve the second-in-command his richly deserved comeuppance, or whether they are able to end the monopoly of Water & Power and the drought. But perhaps readers will guess the answers to all these when I say that what amazed me most about the movie was that—despite being a combination of live-action and surreal cartoon animation, despite the bizarre set design, despite the male love interest being part kangaroo—at its heart, it’s just a good old-fashioned tale of frontier justice.

It’s tough to make something weird and unique that is still compelling. Most well-worn tropes are well-worn because they work very well. Telling a story that is both innovative and yet follows a good, solid three-act plot structure that will satisfy an audience is hard to do, and Tank Girl does it.

I’m amazed I haven’t heard about this movie before now. It’s a funny, entertaining action film—Tank Girl’s one-liners are great, and most of the supporting characters have humorous lines as well. The film never takes itself too seriously, but it has an earnestness underneath all the silliness. Petty’s performance really encapsulates it: she seems cynical, snarky and sarcastic 90% of the time—but when she’s trying to save her young friend, there’s genuine concern in her eyes. 

Interestingly, the film is directed by a woman, it features a woman in the lead role, another in the role of the sidekick, and the main plot concerns the two of them trying to rescue a little girl. Recently, there has been a lot of call for female-directed, female-led action movies, and yet I’ve never heard people mention this one, made all the way back in 1995. The film was neither a critical nor a financial success at the time, but it deserves to be re-evaluated. I think it might be more relevant now than it was in the ‘90s. 

Wait—what’s that, Wikipedia article for Tank Girl? You have pertinent news?

“It was reported in September 2019 that a reboot of the film was in early development.”

AAAARRRRGHHHH!!

Okay, time for one of my rants… 

Look, movie people: you don’t need to reboot things all the time. The point of movies is that… follow me closely here… they record images to be presented again at a later date.

I agree with the sentiment that a Tank Girl movie released in 2020 or beyond could be a hit. What I don’t agree with is the idea that you need to make a whole new one. Just take the existing one, which probably most people have not even heard about, and re-release it in theaters.

Now, I get it: the special effects in Tank Girl are unmistakably those of a mid-‘90s low-budget film. Nobody is going to mistake it for a modern Marvel movie or anything like that. But so what? The aesthetic is unique, and screams “’90s Punk stuff.” Why mess with that? 

And yes, I know there’s a comic book that it’s based on, and presumably a new film would attempt to be more faithful to it, and incorporate more of the undoubtedly rich and nuanced lore of the Tank Girl universe.

But here’s the thing: no adaptation can ever be 100% faithful, so it’s pointless to try. Make an adaptation, see what it looks like, and then move on to the next thing. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve on a concept, but when did the idea of a “spiritual sequel” become extinct? 

Because there’s definitely room for more action comedies about wisecracking women fighting their way across surreal dystopias. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But that doesn’t mean you should make the same one over again. Make a new one. 

This is why I don’t watch more movies—a week ago I didn’t know Tank Girl existed, and now here I am complaining they might do a reboot of it.

Anyway, the point here is that it’s a surprisingly good film. It does have a lot of swearing and a few sex jokes that might put some people off. (Most of these are through implication and innuendo, rather than anything explicit.) The violence is stylized, in typical action movie form. And the animation sequences can be so rapid I could imagine that they might cause some viewers to become nauseated. The film is rated R, although I kind of suspect that today it would be PG-13. It’s fun, it’s weird, and it has gunfights and tanks and cheesy one-liners. What else do you want from an action movie?

I’ll name a famous book, and then recommend a lesser-known book you should read if you enjoyed it. Ready? Let us begin.

a-confederacy-of-dunces@2xIf you like A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole…

…then you should read Incomplete Works, by Noah Goats.iw

The influence of Toole’s legendary comic novel on this book is clear. While the plot isn’t as intricate and the cast not as large, the intelligent, snobbish protagonist of Goats’ novel is definitely a unique character, much like Ignatius J. Reilly.

 

 

HWRIf you like H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator series….

…then you should read The Friendship of Mortals by Audrey Driscoll.
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All right, so this is kind of a layup since the latter is based on the former, but if you are familiar with Lovecraft’s interesting but thinly-sketched serial, you have to read Driscoll’s reimagining, in which she fleshes out Herbert West and his world.

 

 

 

AnnihilationBookIf you like Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer…

…then you should read Ocean Echoes, by Sheila Hurst.

Ocean EchoesNow, you might think this is an odd comparison, especially if you only know Annihilation from the movie adaptation, which is much more sci-fi horror. The movie is very good, but also extremely different than the book. Ocean Echoes isn’t as dark as Annihilation, but both are about a biologist who ventures into the unknown while battling mental demons and scars of past relationships. And both are haunting and beautifully-written.

 

 

TheJungleSinclairIf you like The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair…

…then you should read Eating Bull, by Carrie Rubin.

Okay, confession time here: I don’t like The Jungle. I like Sinclair’s concept of a novel with a social commentary on the meat industry, but the book itself is boring, repetitive and preachy. It’s a neat idea, but it doesn’t work.

eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckleyEating Bull, on the other hand, totally does work because it’s a gripping page-turner of a killer thriller, and the social commentary is woven into the plot, so it feels natural and organic. So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you read only one novel driven by a social comment on Big Food, make it Eating Bull. Also, it’s a bit more timely, being published more than a century after The Jungle.

 

 

***

Now it’s your turn! Name me some famous books, and then some similar, lesser-known book that you think deserves more attention. And yes, it’s completely fair game if you want to list your own books. Go for it.

h-_p-_lovecraft2c_june_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

First, a disclaimer: I’ve said this before, but it’s necessary to reiterate every time I talk about him: H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a very good person. He was a racist. He was an elitist. He was a Nazi sympathizer. (To be fair, he died in 1936; before the worst of their crimes would have been known to the world.) Anytime Lovecraft gets praised for anything, it has to be qualified by mentioning these facts.

When I was in college, I used to go the library in between classes and hang around reading collections of Lovecraft’s letters. And while this meant having to suffer through his frequent bigoted rants, it also exposed me to another side of Lovecraft: the man who assembled a group of like-minded authors, and offered friendly advice, criticism, and encouragement.

Because despite his general fear of other people, Lovecraft was famous for the circle of friends he amassed—mostly fellow writers who were all trying to publish offbeat stories like the ones he wrote. He corresponded with many of the authors who wrote for the aptly-named pulp magazine Weird Tales. The most famous example of this is probably his letters to the teenaged Robert Bloch, who would go on to fame as the author of the extremely un-Lovecraftian horror tale Psycho.

It was also very likely Lovecraft’s correspondence with other writers that saved his work for future generations. August Derleth, another of Lovecraft’s pen-pals, was key to getting many of Lovecraft’s stories published after the author’s death. Lovecraft himself showed next to no interest in the commercial side of writing. I think he considered it beneath his dignity. But Derleth preserved and published the stories for a wider audience, to the point that now Lovecraft has an entire sub-genre named after him.

The ironic thing about Lovecraft is that, for me, most of his stories aren’t particularly scary. With a few exceptions, most of them are fairly obvious and sometimes downright tedious. He had good concepts, but only so-so ability to actually execute them.

But the reason Lovecraft is such an important figure is not his fiction, but that he was a conduit. As his famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature demonstrated, he had a vast knowledge of the work of his predecessors, and kept alive the memory of masters like M.R. James and Robert W. Chambers to pass on to a new generation of horror writers. And in turn, the new generation that Lovecraft introduced popularized his writings, and his style.

Lovecraft wasn’t a great writer, but he had an ability to find people who were. He was like a beacon, assembling people who wanted to write a certain kind of horror, and introducing them to other authors who had tried similar concepts in the past.

(Side-note for Lovecraft fans: I’ve speculated that Lovecraft must have felt some sympathy for Joseph Curwen, the unnaturally long-lived sorcerer in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward who, through necromancy, confers with great minds of the distant past.)

Lovecraft had an uncanny ability to bring people together, and it was that ability that allowed the sub-genre that bears his name to exist. As the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society wrote in tribute to him, in one of their more sentimental Lovecraftian song parodies, “Mythos of a King”:

He was hardly famous, and never rich

Unless you count his friends.

But his Gothic pen has inspired men

And his vision still extends.

For all his flaws—and there were many—this was the thing Lovecraft got exactly right. To me, nothing illustrates this better than Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom. LaValle is an African-American author who enjoyed reading Lovecraft at an early age, even despite all of Lovecraft’s disgusting racist sentiments. LaValle wrote a splendid weird tale both inspired by and in rebuke to Lovecraft.  Someone Lovecraft himself would have looked down on was able to build on the foundation of his tales, and make something better than the original.

***

Another one of those old dead snobs that I used to read in my youth was an author named Albert Jay Nock. Nock, like Lovecraft, was an autodidact, and also a self-described misanthrope. He was an early proponent of libertarian thought, although I have to believe he would find modern libertarianism entirely too crass. Nock, as we’ll see, had a pretty high opinion of himself.

Nock wrote an essay called Isaiah’s Job, about the Biblical prophet charged with warning the people about God’s wrath. While Isaiah is at first discouraged that so few believe him, God explains that His message is for what Nock called “the Remnant”: a select subset of the population who will understand it.

Nock obviously, and with characteristic arrogance, saw himself as a figure similar to Isaiah. His message was meant for a small group of people, people whom the messenger himself may never even personally meet, but who will nonetheless receive it and take appropriate action. Or as Nock put it: “Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness.”

Lovecraft’s function in the world of horror was similar: he put out the message about weird fiction, and became a kind of touchstone for everyone interested in it. Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson, “You are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.” Lovecraft was a conductor of darkness—dark fiction, to those interested in the genre. His own stories are almost superfluous to his real contribution: he united people who otherwise would have remained apart. 

The Omen posterThis film is the apex of horror for me. It’s about an American diplomat named Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) who gradually comes to believe that his son is the antichrist. As eerie events surrounding the child escalate, spearheaded by the mysterious governess, Mrs. Baylock (Billie Whitelaw), he eventually becomes convinced he has to take drastic measures to save the world from Satanic annihilation.

This film was made as part of the 1960s-’70s spate of what MAD magazine called “Devil Flicks”—demonic horror movies kicking off with Rosemary’s Baby and most famously represented by The Exorcist. People often call the latter one of the scariest films of all time, but in my opinion, it’s just a distasteful exercise in gross-out scenes and cheap parlor trick special effects.

The Omen isn’t like that. Oh, sure; it still involves a child who is somehow an agent of Satan, but what I like is that nothing he does is clearly supernatural. The most action we ever see Damien take is throw a tantrum when he is near a church. But even that isn’t necessarily unusual behavior for a small child.

The horrific things are what unfold around Damien—the mysterious black dogs that appear, the way other animals seem to fear the child, and of course, Mrs. Baylock, the seemingly sweet but also sinister woman who cares for the boy.

Think about the level of confidence this takes. It’s easy for a writer to make the villain a winged demon, or a hideous ogre, or some other well-worn theatrical manifestation of evil. The on-screen antagonists in The Omen are (1) a five-year-old kid (2) a quiet, polite woman and (3) some dogs. That doesn’t sound particularly scary, but they make it work—thanks in large part to Whitelaw, who was a terrific actress capable of conveying subtle menace with just a look.

Now, while the film isn’t a gore-fest, there are still some violent scenes. The most shocking is probably the suicide by hanging early on, though perhaps the impalement midway through or the decapitation or the death by plunging from a tall building close to the end are worse. But while these are powerful and disturbing, they aren’t what make the movie scary. What makes it scary is the slowly growing feeling of menace as Thorn, with the help of photographer Keith Jennings (David Warner), gradually pieces together the eerie coincidences and unsettling circumstances surrounding Damien’s birth. Starting with the scene in the obsessed priest’s apartment—wallpapered with Bible verses and newspaper clippings, like any good conspiracy theorist’s would be—there’s a part of the film that’s basically a horror road picture, culminating in what might be the creepiest revelation of all, set in an Etruscan cemetery.

And the soundtrack! I’ve talked about this before; but I can’t overstate how terrifying it is. Just the opening theme by itself is scarier than all but about a half-dozen of the horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s bone-chilling.

Now, there’s the elephant in the room: the religious themes of this film. It’s about the Antichrist, so naturally, the film is filled with references to scripture, in particular the Book of Revelation, and it tracks fairly closely with the prophecies recorded in the final book of the Bible. 

Ha! Gotcha!

Did I say “tracks fairly closely?” Sorry, no—what I meant was, hasn’t really got much of anything to do with it at all.

The main prophecy that the film wants us to believe Damien is fulfilling is this poem, which Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) quotes to Thorn:

 When the Jews return to Zion

And a comet rips the sky

And the Holy Roman Empire rises

Then you and I must die.

From the eternal sea he rises,

Creating armies on either shore,

Turning Man against his brother

Till Man exists no more.

He says this, and then adds, almost as an aside to himself “The Book of Revelation predicted it all.” Troughton really sells this line too, like the Biblical scholar just can’t get over the uncanny way events are playing out just as scripture foretold.

He says it so convincingly that I totally believed it. It was decades before I discovered that the poem is, in fact, completely made up for the movie and has basically nothing to do with the Book of Revelation. In fairness to me, I saw The Omen for the first time as a 12-year-old kid who most certainly would never win any prizes for scripture knowledge. (And yes, I know the movie is R-rated and a 12-year-old really shouldn’t see it. But that is also exactly why 12-year-old me just had to see it!)

The only real ties the movie has to anything Biblical is the quote from Revelation 13:18 at the very end: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the Beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six.” And, as we’ve just seen, Damien has the mark of the Beast on his scalp.

So, yeah. A number. That’s basically all they used from the Bible—that, and of course a bunch of religious imagery. Damien is scared of churches. A church steeple gets struck by lightning. Damien’s shadow forms an inverted cross in the opening credits. There are a bunch of references to the Christian religion and symbols, but really none of it feels integral to the plot. In principle, I think you could, without too much effort, make Damien an avatar of Nyarlathotep or some other “generic” evil instead.

You see, fiction writers love prophecies. I think it’s because it can help to give your story weight if you say it’s all the fulfillment of something foretold long ago. But you have to be careful, because if you just make up a prophecy out of nowhere, it feels contrived and silly. (Hello, Anakin Skywalker, the “Chosen One!”)  

The Omen’s fundamental trick is to take a prophecy that has rather a lot of cultural clout backing it up. Christian texts are so familiar to virtually everyone in the United States, Christian or not, that it gave the movie instant weight. You don’t have to be Christian to know 666 = Bad News.

I can see that Christians might be offended by this, since this film is essentially trading on their holy texts in order to give extra weight to the apocalyptic plot. And, weirdly, I can also see how non-Christians might be offended because the film seems to implicitly endorse Christianity… kinda.

I tried reading the Book of Revelation as a kid after I saw The Omen. Couldn’t make heads or tails out of it, even though I think the Biblical Beast is supposed to have lots of both. Although I think that might be a metaphor? Anyway, you see what I’m saying: I was not cut out to be a Biblical scholar.    

But getting bogged down in ecclesiastical scholasticism is just not what this movie is really about. The religious imagery is just a convenient shorthand for Good and Evil. 

The Omen is really about a child who, for various reasons, a bunch of people believe is going to destroy the world. The child himself never does anything especially out of the ordinary. And this fact lends itself nicely to my personal hobby: alternate interpretations of movies.

Come on; you knew it was coming.

Father Brennan thinks Damien is going to destroy the world and tries, in his own cryptic, abrasive way to prevent it, in the process bringing all sorts of bizarre ideas to Thorn’s attention. Mrs. Baylock thinks Damien is going to destroy the world, and is all about keeping him alive so he can do it. All of this triggers a weird and ultimately tragic series of events, but at no point does Damien deliberately do anything evil. (He does seriously injure his mother, but that is obviously orchestrated by Mrs. Baylock.)

Now, as much as I would love to argue for this being one of those unreliable narrator deals where there’s nothing supernatural going on at all, there’s just no way to make that case. There’s no rational way to account for stuff like the weird images that Jennings captures in his photographs or six Rottweilers showing up staging an ambush in an ancient cemetery. Clearly, some sort of unseen malevolent power is at work in this universe.  But is it really Damien? Or is he just an innocent kid, caught up in events beyond his control that make people around him do insane things? The film doesn’t say.

Well… okay, this film doesn’t say. But The Omen was a box office success, and that of course meant they just had to make a sequel. And so we have Damien: The Omen II.

The Omen II It's Still The Antichrist

I haven’t actually seen this film, so don’t take this to be a review of it. But I have read a summary with spoilers, and I know the basic plot of it: it follows Thorn’s brother, Richard, who gets custody of Damien after the events of the first film and…

…wait for it…

…gradually pieces together bits of evidence which ultimately lead him to believe that…

…are you ready?

…DAMIEN IS ACTUALLY THE ANTICHRIST.

Yes, the plot of the sequel is just the first one over again. Now Damien is older, and now there are different prophecies involved, but… yeah, it’s the same thing.

Watching a guy gradually come to believe that his son is probably the Antichrist was interesting the first time. Watching another a guy come to believe that the guy we already discovered is probably the Antichrist is still probably the Antichrist is boring. But when movie producers know they have a title that they think is a safe bet to sell tickets, they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

So, yeah; the first film in the Omen series was interesting. The second seems to be just a re-hash of the first. I don’t want to comment on it beyond that, because I don’t think it’s very fair to discuss a film I haven’t seen. I’ll just conclude with the simple fact that they made a sequel to a film I loved, but it had a premise so lackluster it couldn’t convince me to see it.

The Omen III The Antichrist Now Has a Hat

Ugh. Make that two sequels.

Right then, Omen III: The Final Conflict. I’ll keep it short, as I have also not seen this film. Damien is still the Antichrist after all these years, and has now become the ambassador to Great Britain, just as Thorn once was. However, this time, after the good characters once again uncover that the Antichrist is, in fact, the Antichrist, they take decisive measures, bringing an end to “the Omen trilogy.” This is, after all, the final conflict.

Omen IV The Antichrist on Ice

ARE YOU KIDDING ME????

I can’t even follow the synopsis of this one… there are two Antichrists, I think… one of them is a girl, maybe? It seems like they did come up with a different plot for this one, replacing “people gradually realize someone is the Antichrist” with “a bunch of weird Devil-type stuff happens.” I don’t know, and I don’t care.

I want to make it very clear that I don’t have a problem with sequels as such. If you’ve created a world that is so rich it has room for more than one story in it, then by all means, tell all of those stories across multiple installments. Likewise, if you’ve created a sprawling, epic tale best told in episodic format, then sequels are completely fine. 

Neither of these things can be said about The Omen. The first film was a simple concept well-executed, with good writing, intelligent direction, and strong performances from a good cast. But that’s all it was, or needed to be. To me, the thing that proves beyond a doubt that this parade of Antichrist movies was driven by studio executives is the fact that they clearly didn’t even understand what made the first film good. 

If you’re going to make a sequel to a successful film, it’s logical to include the central character from that film. And Damien isn’t the central character of The Omen.  I mean, sure; he’s the center of the plot, but he might as well be a McGuffin as far as what he’s required to do from an acting perspective.  Which is smart, by the way. You don’t want a child actor to have to carry the movie. 

Baylock.jpg
Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock

And no, Robert Thorn isn’t the central character either. I’m sure Gregory Peck got paid the most for being in the film, but that’s just because he was Gregory Peck. The central character of The Omen is Mrs. Baylock. She’s the driving force of the whole thing.

Or, maybe more accurately, Billie Whitelaw’s character is the driving force. If they were going to make more Omen movies, they needed to bring Whitelaw back as a similar character. Or just straight-up give Mrs. Baylock the Captain Phasma treatment. But she had to come back in some form for any sequels to work. Having a sequel to The Omen without Mrs. Baylock or someone like her is like having a sequel to Star Wars without Darth Vader. It just reduces the series to an uninteresting mess.

But the original Omen will always be memorable to me. It remains the most scared I’ve ever been of a film. I first saw it on the day before Halloween, and I will never forget lying in my bed early that Halloween morning, worrying that there might be demon dogs breaking into the house. (This pales next to my mom’s experience of the film. She saw it in theaters when it originally came out, and the next morning, she stepped outside her apartment to see, standing around in the morning fog, a bunch of Rottweilers.)

So, bottom line, it will always be a favorite horror film of mine, no matter how many uninspired sequels they may have churned out. The original is good enough that it can survive that. The only thing worse than unnecessary sequels is second-rate remakes produced solely for the sake of a marketing gimmick like releasing on a specific date. 

It Never Ends This $41T

🤦

BtK vs DGo ahead, say that title out loud. (Okay, maybe not if you’re in a public place.) “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula.” The words seem intrinsically strange together, and become even more bizarre when you know that William Bonney, the famous outlaw known as “Billy the Kid,” was shot to death by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881, 16 years before Bram Stoker published his Gothic novel of vampire horror, Dracula. 

Now it’s true, Stoker’s vampire was based on Vlad III Dracula, who lived in the 1400s and thus—if he had been an immortal vampire, which most reliable historians seem to feel he wasn’t—might have found his way into a showdown with the famous outlaw.

But as the film begins, it quickly becomes clear that these details do not matter after all, because Billy the Kid isn’t really Billy the Kid—the film apparently is set in some sort of alternate history in which Mr. Bonney abandoned his outlaw ways, did not run afoul of Sheriff Garrett, and instead became foreman at a ranch, where he is engaged to marry the young daughter of the ranch owner.

Careful students of the craft of storytelling may here ask the question, “Why did the writer choose to tell a story about Billy the Kid in which Billy the Kid does not act like Billy the Kid, but somebody else altogether different?” Careful students of the craft of storytelling are advised to take a stiff drink before going any further, because it is also worth noting that the vampire is not once referred to as Dracula throughout the entire film. 

So, it’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, except Billy the Kid isn’t Billy the Kid, and Dracula isn’t Dracula. All quite clear? Smashing! We proceed.

The film begins with the vampire, (played by John Carradine who portrayed Dracula well in the surprisingly decent film House of Dracula) descending upon a family of German immigrants traveling by wagon in the American west. He bites the young daughter of the group, but is warded off at the sight of a crucifix.

Later, the nameless vampire comes upon a stagecoach, carrying wealthy travelers towards their ranch, where, he learns, their beautiful niece Elizabeth resides. He is much taken with a picture of young Elizabeth shown to him by the travelers. When the coach stops for an evening, the vampire attacks a young Native American woman camped nearby, sparking the rage of the rest of the tribe. They assume it to be the work of the stage coach’s occupants and retaliate by killing them—allowing the vampire to assume the identity of the ranch owner and Elizabeth’s uncle, Mr. Underhill.

Meanwhile, William Bonney and young Elizabeth are playfully shooting tin cans and flirting with each other, much to the annoyance of the previous foreman, who watches jealously from afar. Apparently, being foreman also entails being Elizabeth’s lover, since apparently Billy took both positions from him at the same time.

Realizing that Elizabeth’s uncle Mr. Underhill is due to arrive in town soon, Billy rides off to meet him at the saloon. He arrives just after the vampire, posing as Underhill, has come to the saloon and taken a room. Moments later, the immigrant family arrives, still shaken by the earlier vampire attack, and are horrified when their daughter recognizes “Underhill” as the vampire who attacked her. However, he is somehow able to convince them that he is not a vampire, and, as a gesture of goodwill, allows them to take his room for the evening while he follows Billy to the Underhill ranch.

But of course, this is all a diabolical trick, and the vampire returns that night to finish the job on the poor immigrants’ daughter. Meanwhile, Billy and Elizabeth ponder the idea that there is something odd about her uncle, although what it is they can’t quite put their fingers on…

Dracula

What could it be?

So, after much riding back and forth, Billy getting into a brawl with the ex-foreman, and the old immigrant woman’s attempt to keep the vampire away failing, Elizabeth is carried off into a makeshift lair the vampire has created in an abandoned mine. Billy rides there furiously, ignoring the town doctor’s advice that to defeat the vampire, he must drive a stake through his heart. Instead, in typical outlaw fashion, he tries to gun him down with his revolver. But the bullets have no effect. 

Okay, look: I know it’s absurd to complain about logic in a film called Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. But I can’t help myself. Bullets are just fast-moving, miniature stakes, right? So why shouldn’t they work on the vampire? Now, you might say, “Well, they didn’t hit his heart, so it didn’t work.” I could buy that… except that then Billy throws his gun at the vampire and hits him in the face and knocks him down!

Seriously, what is this? If being hit with bullets didn’t hurt him, why should being hit with a much slower-moving hunk of metal? I know, you all are thinking I’m being Comic Book Guy at this point, but I have a reason for talking about this, and it’s not because I’m one of those people who is going to go off and start a petition demanding that Billy the Kid vs. Dracula  be remade with proper consultation of a period firearms expert and a close-quarters combat specialist.

The reason is because it’s an important lesson for anyone who writes fiction: there are bound to be illogical things in any work of fiction. That’s a given. If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be fiction. But the important thing is that the logic must be internally consistent. We get to make up our own rules for our fictional worlds, but they must never conflict with each other. 

All right now, where was I? Oh, yes! So, Billy then stabs the vampire through the heart with the doctor’s stake, and releases Elizabeth from the spell the creature placed on her. He then carries her out of the mine, in the words of Wikipedia, “presumably to live happily ever after.” I love that use of “presumably.” Like, we think they’re going to live happily ever after, but who knows? It could be they’ll realize that they’re just two very different people who happened to get involved in this weird vampire business, gradually grow apart, and eventually come to the point where they argue over petty things like who should do the dishes before finally realizing that they need to go their separate ways.

So we’re 1,097 words into this review and you’re wondering, “Berthold, why are you even writing about this random lousy 55-year-old movie?” 

The reason is very simple: I’m fascinated by the Weird Western genre. I like westerns for the desolate desert landscapes and their frequent use of themes of loneliness and revenge, and of course, weird supernatural horror was my first love in fiction, and the combination of the two will always interest me. And so while I’ve made a huge amount of fun of the film, it’s nonetheless, in its own odd way, significant as one of the first Weird Western films. 

I mentioned the title at the beginning because I honestly think that a competent storyteller could make something interesting out of that. Make Billy the Kid be honest-to-God Billy the freakin’ Kid, the ruthless outlaw who boldly escaped from a New Mexico Jail, and have him encounter a vampire while on the run from the law, somewhere in the gorgeous New Mexico landscape. A skilled writer could spin all kinds of compelling yarns about death, murder and revenge out of that.

But, instead we got a move that shows a vampire strutting around in daylight! For shame!

That’s okay, though. They say that once you invite the vampire in, your fate is as good as sealed. And since early Weird Westerns invited the vampires west, it’s paved the way for all sorts of interesting stories to follow.

Eagle AscendantThis book is a science fiction coming-of-age tale that tells the story of Robbin Haysus Nikalishin, who from an early age dreams of voyaging to the stars. Set in the 2700s, on an Earth that has been remade after a series of catastrophic wars. A new government has arisen, as well as a new set of moral precepts designed to reconcile as well as supersede the core tenets of the old religions. 

Additionally, the passage of time has gradually changed the spellings and phrasings of the English language—itself now called “Inge.” So, the United States of America has become Midammerik, India has become Ind, and so on. The spellings are clever—different enough to convey that the world has changed, but similar enough that the reader knows what’s what.

Cleverly, the book is framed as an official biography written to commemorate Nikalishin, but with the twist that the notes at the beginning suggest the officials who commissioned it are less than pleased with how the author has chosen to depict the subject.

Nikalishin’s life is driven by his determination and unrelenting desire to be a spaceship captain. He studies physics from some of the best professors in the world, and also attends a military academy, all in order to prepare himself for the job of starship captain. He and his good friend Kolm MaGilligoody rise swiftly through the ranks, ultimately joining an experimental program known as SkyPiercer.

Nikalishin’s other interests besides space travel include birdwatching and, of course, sex. He has many romantic encounters with various women he meets throughout his remarkable rise to worldwide fame as a daring space explorer. Some of the relationships last, some don’t, but all of them influence him in one way or another. The romance sub-plots are well done and always are both integral to the plot and right for the characters.

Now, make no mistake, while the book has strong characters and a great plot, it’s not simply an epic space opera. That is, it’s not one of these affairs where space travel is taken as an unexplained fact-of-life to be explained by hand-waving. This is a “hard” science fiction book, and there is plenty of in-depth discussion about the quantum physics involved with making interstellar jumps. But it never feels heavy-handed or dry; indeed, the discussions about physics punctuated by Nikalishin arguing with his professors are quite enjoyable.

That’s the thing that dazzled me most: how alive and organic the whole world of the book feels. It would have been so easy to make it the literary equivalent of a video game on rails: Robbin Nikalishin meets character X who gives him Y so he can advance to the next stage and ultimately be a space hero.

But Taylor didn’t take the easy way. She did the hard, meticulous work of world-building and fleshing out all the supporting characters. I’m in awe of how every character, from Nikalishin’s mother to his best friend to his lovers and even down to the ship’s janitor, are fully-realized and well-described. This isn’t a book, it’s a whole universe rendered in prose.

Oh, and I haven’t even touched on how much I love the depiction of religion. Kolm and his family follow a strain of religion clearly descended from Irish Catholicism. They don’t even fully understand some of the meaning of the symbols and terms of the rituals, but they follow them even so, and it brings them spiritual comfort. I loved the way this was handled—neither stridently preachy nor cloyingly condescending; it felt real.

Now we’re at the part of the review where I typically mention typos in indie books. I know from reading Taylor’s blog that she self-edits her books, and that’s typically verboten for indie authors. Do you know how many typos I found in this book?

Two.

That’s right, two typos in the whole thing. I don’t have a word count for this book, but I know Amazon estimates the length at 510 pages. My longest book is 308 pages, and it was about 67,000 words, so approximately 217 words per page. If that’s the same here, that means Taylor wrote about 110,670 words, self-edited, and came out with only two minor errors. 

That’s insanely good. In the novel, the characters have to make precise calculations, correct down to like the millionth decimal place, before attempting an interstellar jump, or they risk disaster. Taylor obviously has a knack for care and precision that makes her fit to serve aboard one of her own starships! 

If you can’t tell already, I absolutely loved this book and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Taylor built a fascinating world, populated it with rich, believable characters, and told a brilliantly paced story about them. This is sci-fi at its best.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about something somewhat spoiler-y. It’s not giving away too much, as it concerns something that happens less than a quarter of the way into the book, but it has ramifications for the rest of the story. Feel free to skip this if you want to go in completely unspoiled.

Nikalishin’s parents divorce when he is a young boy after his father physically abuses him and his mother, Sterling. Sterling raises her son on her own, and makes every effort to see that he achieves his dream of becoming a starship captain.  

At some point, in his late teens, Robbin learns that Sterling has been working as an escort for wealthy men in order to pay for her son to attend the schools and take the classes he needs. Robbin is horrified by this revelation, and ever afterward, his relationship with his mother becomes strained. He feels, somehow, that everything he achieves and his relationship with her are irrevocably tainted. They have a falling out, and later a semi-reconciliation, but he can never quite achieve a healthy relationship with her, even when he leaves to risk his life on dangerous space missions.

This made me dislike Robbin. He seemed quite ungrateful towards his mother, after everything she’d done for him. He even, for lack of a better term, slut-shames her at one point, which is ludicrous given that he himself seemingly sleeps with every other woman he meets. (More than one character calls him out on his hypocrisy, but he doesn’t seem to take it to heart.)

In a way, his initial feelings are kind of understandable. We get it, Robbin; you had to think about your mother sleeping with someone, and it grossed you out. But after that moment of revulsion, an adult should realize that parents are just people, and that these are the kinds of situations that happen in life, and then get past it. After all, as Sterling repeatedly tells her son, she did it for him.

Even as a world-renowned heroic starship captain, Robbin Nikalishin really is profoundly childish in many ways. He has extremely limited ability to understand the feelings of women. He’s stunned to discover one of his acquaintances is a lesbian. He doesn’t mind it, per se, he just acts like the concept is completely new to him. 

He also has an incredibly bad temper. He is sometimes justified, but even then, he tends to explode in rage at the slightest provocation. Admittedly, the primary antagonist, who does not appear until relatively late in the book, is quite infuriating. But Capt. Nikalishin gets bent out of shape when someone so much as mispronounces his surname. I was rooting for him, but there were still times when I wanted to sock him right in the belly of his beloved military uniform and tell him to grow the hell up.

To be clear, none of this is a complaint about the writing. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a credit to Taylor that she was able to craft such a complete character, that a reader could both cheer on and simultaneously find extremely irritating. Too many writers make their heroes one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, or worse, heroes with one painfully obvious flaw tacked-on just to make them Not Perfect. Capt. Nikalishin is a flawed hero, and better still, he’s flawed in the way that real heroic figures often are. Think about the philosopher Carlyle and his so-called “great men,” who often were impulsive, emotional and obsessed with crafting their own image as flawless paragons. Nikalishin is what I suspect a real-life “great man” is like—which is to say, quite maddening to know personally.

And of course, I should stress that this is only part one of the series. The book ends with an absolutely epic cliffhanger, and I’m eagerly looking forward to finding out how things develop from here.  

It’s funny: even though I like writing sci-fi adventures, most of the indie books I’ve reviewed have not been in that genre. I haven’t consciously avoided them; that’s just how it’s worked out. Audrey Driscoll recommended this to me, and I’m so grateful that she did. It was fun to read a book in roughly the same genre as I primarily write—especially one as marvelous as this one. I’m guessing that if you enjoyed my novel The Directorate, you are very likely going to love this book. It’s a brilliantly thought-out and well-executed science-fiction epic.  

As one indie sci-fi author to another: Ms. Taylor, my hat’s off to you. This is a really great novel, and for me, it ranks right up there with the best by the likes of Asimov, Clarke, and the other All-Time Greats of science fiction. 

Galaxy of Fear was a series of horror-themed Star Wars books for children published in the late ‘90s. I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid, so as you can imagine, I gobbled them up. I’m not sure if these were the first horror books I ever read, but they were the first ones I remember reading, so they always have a special place in my heart. 

The books follow the adventures of Tash and Zak Arranda, two children orphaned after the destruction of the planet Alderaan, now under the care of their “uncle”—a scientist named Hoole, who is a member of a species of shape-shifters known as Shi’idos.

Gof1-eatenaliveBook #1

Eaten Alive

This book is told from Tash’s perspective. She, Zak and Hoole crash-land on a planet called D’vouran, after it mysteriously pulls them out of hyperspace. The population of the planet is friendly enough, although Tash has the canonical “bad feeling” about it. She encounters a mad wandering beggar who warns her about people disappearing. In the fine tradition of Zadok Allen from The Shadow over Innsmouth, he turns out to be on to something with his dire warnings. 

I’m going to try not to spoil these books, even though they are over twenty years old and in many cases, kind of give away what the horror is going to be by their titles, covers, etc. Let’s just say the name of the planet is significant. And, since I’m summarizing the series, I have no choice but spoil the fact that Tash, Zak and Hoole ultimately survive, thanks to an assist from the heroes of the original trilogy, which leads us into more horror hijinks with…

Gof2-citydeadBook #2

City of the Dead

This one is told from Zak’s perspective. He is haunted by a recurring nightmare of the corpses of his late parents tapping at his window. The trio is dropped off on a planet reassuringly named “Necropolis.” Zak befriends another boy who lives on the planet, who tells him about the supposed curse of Sycorax, a witch who lived there long ago, and a dare that involves entering a cemetery at night. Soon after, strange things begin happening, and Zak becomes convinced that the dead are returning from their graves.

This book is, by far, my favorite in the series. I love the setting; a whole morbid planet, gloomily obsessed with death. I love the eerie holographic cover. And I love the fact that my man Boba Fett gets to be the character-from-the-movies-who-saves-the-day-with-his-cameo-appearance this time.

All right, so I’m not doing great at not spoiling this, but I can’t help it! I will say that every book (for that matter, every chapter) ends with a cliffhanger that suggests all is not well. Often, this is not followed up on in the next book, and that’s clearly the case here. This has led me to develop my own completely preposterous fan theory regarding these books, but more on that later. For now, it’s on to…

Book #3PlanetPlagueCover

Planet Plague

The good news is, this book is told from Tash’s perspective. I like her better than Zak. The bad news is, the guest star character from the movies is Wedge Antilles. Wedge Antilles seems to be the character who gets shoehorned in whenever Expanded Universe writers need a rebel pilot, but can’t have Luke. I find him boring in all his appearances.

Also, the threat in this book is just not as scary as the first two. Arguably, a plague bio-weapon should be a more realistic concept, but then you see the cover, which basically has the Flemoid King on it, and you go, nah, actually it isn’t that realistic. 

This book does get some points for establishing that it is not a coincidence that the Arrandas and Hoole keep getting drawn into these bizarre and horrifying situations, for introducing them to the overall antagonist of the plot arc, who has the awesome name of “Borborygmous Gog,” another Shi’ido who once worked with Uncle Hoole, and for introducing me to the word “ziggurat,” which is fun to say.

Still, I think this is one of the weaker books. Maybe things will get better in…

TheNightmareMachineCoverBook #4

The Nightmare Machine

It’s back to Zak’s perspective for this one. Which actually works, because they go to Hologram Fun World, a sort of virtual reality amusement park. It somehow seems right for an immature boy to tell this story. The big attraction at Hologram Fun World is “The Nightmare Machine”—a V.R. chamber that shows you your worst fear. A sort of Orwellian Room 101 that you have to pay to enter. I’m surprised Disney hasn’t built one yet. 

But—wouldn’t you know it!—something goes horribly wrong with the simulation, and it doesn’t end when it’s supposed to. And once again, we find the hidden hand of Gog working behind the scenes to torment Zak and Tash. 

I love the concept here—the bending of reality itself is a great vehicle for horror. How can Zak ever really be sure he’s woken up? City of the Dead is still my favorite in this series, but this one has a really great concept. Also, the celebrity guest is Lando Calrissian. Gotta love Lando.

So, with the amusement park from hell behind us, we proceed to…

Book #5GhostoftheJediCover

Ghost of the Jedi

This is back to Tash’s perspective, and Tash is obsessed with the Jedi. It’s kind of suggested she might be Force-sensitive. She’s been chatting with somebody on what basically amounts to an internet chat room.

Ok… let me pause and explain to you young people… a chat room was sort of like if you had a whole site that was just the comments section. A forum basically, before all of it got jazzed up and called “social media.”

Anyway, Tash’s internet friend, whom I’ll call Master Guccifer because that’s better than his actual handle, turns out not to be entirely on the level. Unfortunately, Tash only discovers this after agreeing to go to an abandoned space station which Master Guccifer has convinced her holds a lot of Jedi secrets.

Is it too much of a spoiler to say that Gog is, once again, pulling all the strings here? No, I don’t think it is. The first five books have all been part of the “Gog” arc—or maybe more accurately, the “Starscream” arc, because that’s the name of Gog’s project. 

I do like this tale for two reasons: first, the atmosphere of the space station/library is pretty creepy, and second, because it actually teaches kids a valuable lesson: don’t trust what random weirdos you find on the internet are telling you, even if they claim to be well-read.

Oh, wait a minute. I just essentially told you not to trust me, didn’t I? Shoot. 

Well, you have to at least stick with me to see where all this is going! After all, we’re about to finally unravel the mystery of Project Starscream in…

Book #6ArmyofTerrorCover

Army of Terror

The Arrandas and Hoole arrive on the planet Kiva, a desolate world, haunted by shadows—ghostly presences, ultimately revealed to be the victims of a failed project Gog had been working on. 

Also on the planet, they find an adorable, cuddly creature which says “Eppon.” Deciding that he must be saying his name (like a pokémon) Tash takes Eppon as a sort of pet. Eppon is an adorable, cute little creature who seems like he couldn’t hurt a fly.

But Eppon grows. Particularly, when the rebels guarding him mysteriously die, he grows. Finally, it is revealed that he is Gog’s ultimate creation—Eppon is a mispronunciation of “weapon,” and he is meant to be a monster that will, I guess, go around killing people. It seems like a lot of trouble to go through when there are wild wampas running around Hoth that could do as well. I’m honestly not sure why the Empire bankrolled this project. 

And there are more revelations in store! Uncle Hoole (whose first name is “Mammon”)  was Gog’s colleague in the disastrous project that created the shadowy ghost-presences. The creatures have been seeking their revenge upon Hoole, but then realize it was actually Gog who destroyed their planet, and accordingly, decide to kill him instead. 

Okay, I know I’ve poked a lot of fun at these books, and they aren’t really supposed to be taken seriously—they’re pulp sci-fi horror for kids, after all. I’m told they’re a knock-off of Goosebumps. Having not read Goosebumps, I wouldn’t know about that. 

But all that being said, I like these ideas. I like that “Eppon” is how the little creature misunderstands his name. I like that he is ultimately shown to be as much a victim of Gog’s madness as much as anyone else is. And I love how Uncle Hoole has been seeking redemption for his role in the vast tragedy that destroyed the planet. (In a way, it’s a forerunner of the central theme of Knights of the Old Republic II, the greatest Star Wars story of them all, in which the destruction of Malachor V by the Mass Shadow Generator still haunts all the characters.) 

The whole arc is at times silly, at times a bit groan-worthy, and definitely too filled with Original Trilogy characters wearing sandwich boards to remind us that yes, this is totally a Star Wars book. But for all that, it’s a satisfying story, with some scary concepts, and good characters. Yes, Zak is kind of one-dimensional, but Tash and Uncle Hoole are interesting, and even grow a bit over the series. And I didn’t even mention the dry, professorial droid DV-9, who serves as the children’s  caretaker when Hoole is away. He’s less annoying than C-3P0, that’s for sure. 

Now, because this is Star Wars, we can’t just quit while we’re ahead and be content with a nice satisfying story, and as a result, there are six more books after the “Gog “ or “Starscream” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it arc ended.  

These books aren’t as good. Now it’s just the Arrandas and Hoole roaming around at random and somehow getting involved in more bizarre and horrific things—but this time there is no reason for it. Maybe it’s just me, but if the same three characters are going to keep having adventures, I like it to be for some discernible reason. Just having them keep happening to stumble into brain-transplant experiments or infestations of billions of insects or whatever the hell Spore is doesn’t work for me.

Although to be fair, the cover of The Swarm is pretty awesome:

TheSwarmCover

There are more cameos too, including Jabba the Hutt, Admiral Thrawn, Boba Fett (again), Darth Vader (again) Yoda, and Dash Rendar.

Remember what I said about Star Wars writers using Wedge Antilles as a poor man’s Luke? Well, Dash Rendar is the same thing for Han Solo. And I get it: we all like the idea of a roguish smuggler with a dark past. But Rendar never worked for me—he just screamed “We wanted to have this be Han Solo, but we can’t, so we made up this guy, who flies a similar ship, acts a similar way, and basically does all the same stuff as Han Solo would do.” I liked Shadows of the Empire—both the game and the book—but Dash Rendar was definitely a weak point. The part where Xizor tries to seduce Princess Leia was the highlight of the book, and the space battle at the end was the highlight of the game.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, right—so the random weird stuff cycle of Galaxy of Fear; it isn’t as good. But there are a few interesting things, even so. In particular, book #11 Clones. I forget all the details now, but somehow or other, there’s this place churning out evil clones of people for some reason. For perspective, even Darth Vader has an evil clone. Think about that.

This is interesting given that only a few years later, George Lucas would make Attack of the Clones, where we learn that all the stormtroopers are clones. I realize that continuity isn’t a priority in this universe, but I would have thought Lucas would have at least bothered to tell whoever was in charge of content control, “Hey, I have it in mind to do something with clones in a future movie. Tell people not to use that in any spin-off stories.”

Oh, well. It’s Star Wars. If there’s one thing you can say unequivocally about Star Wars, it’s that none of it makes any sense whatsoever. At this point, it really has become a modern mythology, with various mangled versions that spring from the same set of ideas, but diverge in wildly contradictory ways. Future anthropologists may someday try to piece the whole mess together in an effort to understand the beliefs of 20th and 21st-century humans.

But while it may not have made sense, Galaxy of Fear was a lot of fun for an 8-year-old kid discovering he liked horror and sci-fi.

Now then, I promised you a totally preposterous fan theory. There is one way the second half of the series could be made to work; a way that would explain why all this stuff keeps happening to Zak and Tash, even after the defeat of Gog and everything else: what if Zak has been trapped in the Nightmare Machine the entire time?