This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolf, will certainly enjoy.
Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.
I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.
But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.
But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.
The book takes place in 1984, when the narrator stumbles upon a bloody backpack belonging to someone named Jared Palmer at a strange site in a remote part of the desert. He hires a private investigator to help him find Palmer and unravel the mystery.
However, their investigations only lead to more questions: Palmer is apparently mixed-up with a strange cult that practices odd rituals, and which apparently attaches some significance to the protagonist, due to the fact he is related to a certain famous author. (Not named, but there’s no doubt who it is.)
Things get weirder and weirder. The activities of the cult prove to be far more widespread and sinister than initially imagined. There are conspiracies within conspiracies, and double- and triple-crosses. Above all, there is the possibility, as always in your really top-flight Lovecraft tales, that our protagonist is an unreliable narrator.
Basically, the book is pure Lovecraftian horror. Even the writing style evokes HPL’s. At times, it out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft, if that is in fact possible.
I won’t say too much more about the plot, except that I was a satisfied customer–I came in looking for some good old-fashioned cosmic horror, and I got what I wanted.
That’s pretty much my review. If you like Lovecraft, you’ll like this.
Now, there’s one other comment I have. It’s a bit of a spoiler, but I hope not too much. Feel free to skip it if you want to maximize your surprise when reading the book.
As some readers may recall, I recently reviewed the film Wonder Woman 1984. There’s a scene in it where one of the characters meets the President–never named in the film, but obviously resembling Reagan–who reveals the existence of a secret satellite network capable of broadcasting across the globe.
In this book, there’s a scene where a character meets the President–again, not named, but it’s obvious who he is, not only because it’s 1984, but because of his manner and his fondness for jelly beans. And a top-secret satellite broadcasting network is integral to the plot of this book, also!
Apart from these details, Wonder Woman 1984 and Book of the Elder Wisdom are nothing alike. (For the record: Book of the Elder Wisdom was published in August 2020, WW84 premiered in December 2020.) But these commonalities were interesting to me. Why? Well, I’m not sure. I feel like it says something about the zeitgeist, the millieu, the cultural moment, and any other pretentious five-dollar terms you can think of that mean “what was happening at the time.”
But I don’t know what it is. I can’t even begin to speculate about what it is.
Lovecraft! Few names are as loaded as his. The weight it carries, the emotions it evokes–what power this strange, little-known-in-his-time pulp writer has assumed!
Most of the time, when I talk about Lovecraft on this blog, it’s to criticize him. And there’s a lot to criticize. I’ve written about this before. But Lovecraft has this way about him: just when you’re ready to dismiss him, you remember some piece of his work that’s so interesting you can’t just write him off altogether.
Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: his 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.”
“The Haunter of the Dark” tells the story of a young writer named Robert Blake who moves to Providence, Rhode Island. Blake is fascinated by the occult, and soon becomes obsessed with a huge church on a hill far across the city, that he is compelled to stare at for hours from the window of his apartment.
Eventually, he visits the church, where he finds the remains of a reporter who apparently died while investigating the activities of a mysterious religious order called “The Church of Starry Wisdom.” He also finds a strange object in the abandoned church, and immediately upon seeing it, feels an evil presence.
This evil presence–some manner of alien entity, left vague in classic Lovecraftian fashion–can move only in darkness. But when a thunderstorm knocks out power to the city one night, Blake feels sure he is marked for death by the creature that lives in the church tower.
It’s not a long story. It can easily be read in one sitting. And for the seasoned HPL veteran there’s not a lot of new ground here: there’s a legend haunted New England town, a weirdly antiquarian protagonist, a nameless alien horror–this is all familiar. But there are nonetheless some things I find noteworthy about this particular story.
The first is, I admit, purely subjective. “The Haunter of the Dark” is my favorite Lovecraft story. Can I point to anything to say that it’s clearly better than some of his other really good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Hound”? Not really. I could probably make an argument for why it’s better than many of his most famous stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu.” But nevertheless, this is purely a matter of personal taste.
Or is it?
Well… maybe there are some other, non-subjective reasons why I can say that “The Haunter of the Dark” is the apex of Lovecraftian horror. Or maybe not, and what I think is objective is just more subtly subjective. But there must be some reason why this story stands out to me above all the others, right?
Well, let’s dig into the evidence–but all the while, bearing in mind the guarded distrust of the narrator that is the hallmark of any Lovecraft tale. After all, “the papers have given the tangible details from a sceptical angle, leaving for others the drawing of the picture as Robert Blake saw it—or thought he saw it—or pretended to see it.”
That’s as good a place as any to start. So, who is Robert Blake?
In one sense, he’s a stereotypical Lovecraft protagonist. He’s an eccentric weirdo who lives alone and is fascinated by the bizarre and the esoteric, and has seemingly no life outside his dedication to these subjects. Almost everyone in Lovecraft-world is like this.
But there’s more to the story: Robert Blake is a surrogate for Robert Bloch, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, to whom “The Haunter of the Dark” is dedicated.
All right, so who was Robert Bloch?
Well, eventually, he would go on to be a fairly popular horror writer himself. But in the 1930s, he was basically nobody; just a teenager who read Weird Tales magazine and had written fan mail to Lovecraft.
And Lovecraft wrote back. He encouraged the young Bloch in his own writing efforts, giving him advice and introducing him to other members of his literary circle. Lovecraft even gave Bloch permission to write a story in which a Lovecraft-surrogate was killed off. “The Haunter of the Dark” was HPL’s reciprocation of this gesture.
Now, of course in the 1930s, Lovecraft was not as well-known as he is today. But still, imagine what a thrill it must have been for teenager Robert Bloch to become so close (closeness being evaluated on a relative scale when it comes to Lovecraft) to someone he perceived as a great author.
“The Haunter of the Dark” is, among other things, a reader’s dream come true. What if your favorite author put you in one of their stories? Lovecraft even included Bloch’s actual address in Wisconsin! (Which today would be considered doxxing, but hey, it was a different time.)
Lovecraft often referenced his literary friends’ works in other stories as a sort of in-joke, but to write a whole story around someone who wasn’t really even a peer, but just a young fan, is pretty extraordinary.
But that’s not all that makes “Haunter of the Dark” special. In fact, usually fan service in fiction ends up being detrimental to the overall story, and to see why that is not the case here, we have to look at what Lovecraft did in designing the story’s antagonist. For this, Lovecraft plays on humanity’s most basic phobia: the fear of the dark.
Lovecraft rarely created rules for his monsters. He didn’t use vampires who only come out at night, werewolves who appear only when the moon is full, etc. Largely, this was because it was important to him that his alien monsters be utterly inscrutable to humans–beings whose motivations, if any, lay so outside our own domain as to be unfathomable.
And this is still true for the thing which haunts the deserted church on Federal Hill. But Lovecraft does give this monster one very basic, almost childishly obvious rule: it can’t go out in the light.
It sounds almost too simplistic. This is the kind of thing you’d make up in telling a campfire story about a generic boogeyman. But damme, it works! The climax of the story, with Blake watching in mounting terror during the huge electrical storm, is, in my opinion, the best thing Lovecraft ever wrote:
He had to keep the house dark in order to see out of the window, and it appears that most of his time was spent at his desk, peering anxiously through the rain across the glistening miles of downtown roofs at the constellation of distant lights marking Federal Hill. Now and then he would fumblingly make an entry in his diary, so that detached phrases such as “The lights must not go”; “It knows where I am”; “I must destroy it”; and “it is calling to me, but perhaps it means no injury this time”; are found scattered down two of the pages.
Then the lights went out all over the city. It happened at 2.12 A.M. according to power-house records, but Blake’s diary gives no indication of the time. The entry is merely, “Lights out—God help me.”
This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
But with “Haunter of the Dark” Lovecraft hit a terrific balance between his own incomprehensible creatures of inconceivably distant worlds and the most basic elements of an old-fashioned scary story. In almost all his stories, Lovecraft undercuts the atmosphere somehow, but this time, he kept a steady hand.
And to me, what makes this especially remarkable–poignant, even–is that it’s Lovecraft’s final story. He died in 1937, shortly after “Haunter of the Dark” was published in Weird Tales, and I think he had a sense that the end was near when he was writing it. It feels valedictory, from the way he quotes his own poem Nemesis as an epigraph, to the fact that he dedicated it to a younger protegé as a way of passing the torch, right down to its final lines. Admittedly, having a story end with the protagonist’s last words before death is a Lovecraft staple, but
I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wing—Yog Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye . . .
…was the last thing he wrote for publication, and this seems intuitively fitting. H.P. Lovecraft could not go out any other way.
This is why “The Haunter of the Dark” is always worth revisiting, especially at this time of year–“the aeon-shadowed Walpurgis time,” as Lovecraft would say. It encapsulates so much about Lovecraft–his unique philosophy of horror, the evocation of the eerie atmosphere he sought to create, and perhaps above all else, his skill at cultivating relationships with other weird fiction aficionados.
Murder on Eridanos starts off with a bang. Aetherwave serial star Halcyon Helen is murdered at the Grand Colonial Hotel, just before she was due to unveil Rizzo’s new drink, Spectrum Brown. Naturally, the player character is hired to investigate the murder.
The gameplay is familiar to anyone who has played vanilla Outer Worlds, although there is the wonderful addition of the Discrepancy Amplifier–an AI magnifying glass that picks up on unusual items, footprints etc. to aid the player in finding clues.
Also, one of my few gripes about the first DLC, Peril on Gorgon, has been addressed here: the new weapons are better and more distinctive. The player even gets a chance to wield Helen’s iconic pistol, the Needler, which I’d been dying to do since seeing it in this in-game poster:
Speaking of Halycon Helen, she’s a great character, and I have to admit I was a little disappointed that the game starts with her being killed off, before we even have a chance to meet her. No spoilers, but in the end it made sense.
Ah, well, okay–I am going to give a little bit of a spoiler. It’s not giving everything away, but you might want to skip it if you like to be surprised. My only criticism of this DLC is that its formula is about the same as Peril on Gorgon‘s: player is hired to investigate something, then the party which hired the player is revealed to have hidden ulterior motives.
However, the overall story was different enough that it worked. I liked Murder on Eridanos much better than Peril on Gorgon. (And to be clear, I liked Peril on Gorgon a lot!) This is saying something, because there are few faster ways to turn me off a work of fiction than by having it start off with a woman being murdered. It’s such an old trope, but Obsidian has built up enough goodwill over the years that I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did.
Murder on Eridanos does what all DLC should do: reinforces the overarching theme of the main game. In keeping with the rest of The Outer Worlds, it centers around a plot by a corporation to sell harmful products disguised with saccharine marketing. The corporate propaganda art, always an amusing element of the game, reaches new heights in Murder on Eridanos.
Misleading advertising is one of the core themes of Outer Worlds, right down to the loading screens that report the players’ actions from the perspective of the corporations. The whole game is a satire on the dehumanizing effect large organizations have on the individuals they control.
Halcyon Helen is a perfect example of this–as more than one character observes, she is not a person, but a brand. Most characters speak of “Halcyon Helen,” not the actress who plays her, Ruth Bellamy. Helen is a symbol, and the corporations know it.
Murder on Eridanos is a fitting capstone to The Outer Worlds in another respect: it’s a very deliberate homage to the tropes of pulp detective stories. Pulpiness is at the heart of the game’s aesthetic, and a detective investigating the death of a serial star is about as pulp-y as it gets.
I say “capstone” because apparently this will be the last DLC for Outer Worlds. That’s a pity; the game’s potential seems endless. But as this is the end of the line, I’ll use this review to provide a retrospective on the game as a whole.
A while back, I used the term “techno-decadence” to describe a particular type of science fiction. I have to say, it was playing The Outer Worlds that made it crystallize in my mind. The game strives for a retro-futuristic aesthetic in everything, from the Art Deco architecture and graphic design to the state of the in-game entertainment industry, with its deliberate parody of Old Hollywood, right down to the many references to classic sci-fi.
This is, I think, more than just a stylistic choice. The Outer Worlds’ retro vibe speaks to nostalgia, a longing for bygone… dare I say it? Yes, I think so… halcyon days. Even the in-game sport of tossball, with its devoted fans, colorful players and collectible cards is a throwback to the Golden Age of baseball.
That the game happened to be released just after Obsidian Entertainment was acquired by Microsoft makes its themes all the more interesting. While Obsidian was joining the ranks of the consolidated corporate behemoths, it was also producing a sharp critique of modern oligopolies. A rebellion against the modern formulas of gaming, with their endless sequels and multiplayer modes and pay-to-win content models and other general malevolence practiced by the industry’s largest companies.
And the aesthetic is part of the rebellion, I’m convinced of that. Compare the soulless graphics of Call of Duty to the inspired art of Outer Worlds and you’ll see what I mean. The reason The Outer Worlds is beautiful and Call of Duty isn’t is the same reason Call of Duty has an online death-match mode and The Outer Worlds doesn’t: because The Outer Worlds is for aesthetes who want immersion in a new world.
My friends, the central question of gaming is also the question at the heart of modern civilization: do we rule the tech, or does it rule us? More precisely, are these games nothing but elaborate demonstrations of the latest machines, or are they vehicles for telling stories, with which the machines are needed to assist?
After all, a corporation is a kind of machine–a system, in which the individuals it comprises are meant to carry out the purpose of the whole unit. And so we see at the resort on Eridanos a system that is meant to deliver happiness, and therefore mandates happiness to all its employees.
Of course, mandated happiness is not happiness at all. To experience joy, people must also be able to feel sorrow, fear, etc. The human experience is a gestalt of all these things. But that’s not exactly a message that makes people want to go shopping, which is why Rizzo’s goes to some extreme lengths to deliver “happiness.”
I promised not to spoil Murder on Eridanos, and I’ll keep that promise. Just know that these ideas are present if you look for them, and the difference between being human and being a symbol for a corporate initiative are explored in-depth–and all in the context of a terrific game.
The power of games is the power to transport us to simulated worlds. The best of them let us return from these ventures with something new, like the protagonist of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey–a new perspective on reality, achieved by contrasting it with the in-game universe. The Outer Worlds allows the player to do just that, and so I say again what I said back in 2019–not really that long ago, and yet in some ways it feels even further away than the Halcyon cluster–The Outer Worlds is an all-time classic.
Having a PhD probably sounds pretty glamorous, right? You think of a PhD as a scientist in a lab making amazing discoveries, or maybe, if they’re in humanities or social sciences, as someone sitting comfortably in a nice room full of books, poring over the Great Texts of their field.
Yeah, well; if Campus Confidential is any guide, that’s not quite how it works. The protagonist, Dr. Rowena Halley, can barely manage to scrape by after landing a one-semester job teaching Russian at a university in New Jersey. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, Rowena is named after the character in Ivanhoe. And her Marine brother, although he goes by John, is named for the titular character of that novel.)
On top of navigating all the challenges of starting a new job in a strange city, dealing with faculty politics, and the constant nuisances caused by university bureaucracy, Dr. Halley finds herself caught up in trying to help her students, many of whom are still affected by the recent suicide of a popular student in the Russian program.
This suicide is part of the mystery at the heart of the plot. The book is after all a thriller, which involves drug-dealing, mafia, and all sorts of shady goings-on that we would normally never think of associating with an institution of higher learning.
But for all the thriller elements, I don’t think of this book as a mystery in the normal sense. Because the core of the book isn’t just in finding out how the plot unfolds, but in seeing these characters interact in the context of an often hypocritical, almost always absurd university whose administrators espouse noble beliefs, but all too often betray them by their actions.
The real charm of the book is in little details, like the way Dr. Halley has to start teaching classes before her official employment starts, due to some arcane rule of Human Resources, or the way the unctuous Department Chair tries to use a simple conversation with Dr. Halley to ingratiate himself to the Provost. Like Geoffrey Cooper’s novels, this book is not just a good thriller, but a window into the politics of academia.
And then there are the characters. They all feel well-rounded and believable. Even the “villains” are human beings. All of them are revealed to have flaws–sometimes very, very bad flaws–but there are no cardboard cut-outs here. They are all fully-realized people. Even the most minor characters have backstories and personalities.
This is more than just a mystery story; it’s an astutely-observed depiction of modern academic life. I recommend it highly, and I’m eagerly looking forward to the next one.
As usual, there will be spoilers. Don’t read if you don’t want to know what happens. But that’s probably not what’s going to turn off most of my readers. No, the hard part is going to be persuading those who have no interest in yet another superhero movie that it’s worthwhile to spend more than two seconds thinking about one.
Well, who can say what is a worthy subject for discussion in the world of fiction? Or any world for that matter? But I’ll do my best to make the case for why it might be.
The film begins with an intro sequence showing a young Diana competing in a race on Paradise Island. Yeah, yeah; I know it’s called “Themyscira” now, but if “Paradise Island” was good enough for Lynda Carter in the 1970s, it’s good enough for me.
After this, there is another intro sequence that shows the grown-up Diana as Wonder Woman in (duh) 1984, foiling an attempted theft at a shopping mall. Yes, that’s right–there are two intro sequences, one after the other! One of the rules of writing that people throw around is to eschew prologues. I disagree with this, but I think avoiding two successive prologues is probably fair advice for filmmaking.
Anyway, then the story gets going: Diana Prince works at the Smithsonian, studying ancient artifacts. Another scientist, Dr. Barbara Minerva arrives, and the two begin studying a mysterious stone that the thieves from the second intro sequence had been attempting to steal.
Dr. Minerva is nervous, shy and awkward, and she admires Diana’s cool confidence. Diana, it seems to her, is the woman who has everything. But Diana does not, in fact, have everything. We see she is desperately lonely; still mourning her lover, Steve Trevor, who perished nobly in the first Wonder Woman movie.
Anyway, that stone that Diana and Dr. Minerva are studying is also sought by businessman Maxwell Lord, a charismatic TV personality whose gaudy lifestyle and brash persona masks the fact that his company is on the brink of financial collapse.
He wants the stone because, as legend has it, touching the stone and making a wish will grant the holder’s request. We quickly see several demonstrations of this–Minerva held the stone and wished to be like Diana, and immediately became more confident and charismatic. And Diana has touched the stone and unconsciously wished to have Steve back. And suddenly, he is somehow restored to life, inhabiting the body of some random guest at a party that Diana is attending. To Diana, he appears as her old flame from 1917, and the two waste no time picking up where they left off.
Meanwhile, Lord meets Dr. Minerva, plays upon her craving for attention, and wheedles his way into making her give him the stone. He then makes a wish to make himself the stone, taking on its power and allowing him to grant people’s wishes, in exchange for taking something from them.
Chaos ensues, as Lord amasses greater wealth and power for himself. People wish to fulfill their selfish desires, sacrificing in the process something of theirs that Lord wants.
Diana and Steve eventually realize, given the stone’s malevolent nature and origins, that it will lead to an apocalyptic collapse of civilization. Dr. Minerva also realizes this, but sees that attempting to thwart Lord and end the spell will mean she loses all the physical powers she gained since making her wish, and she is not going to let that happen. So she joins forces with Lord, who by this point has managed to secure the powers of the Presidency itself, and in the process pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Steve finally convinces Diana that she must renounce her wish, and allow him to return to being nothing but a bittersweet memory. Once she accepts this, Diana is strong enough to pursue Lord and Minerva to a remote military installation, where the former has taken over an experimental global broadcast network, allowing him to tempt the entire planet with his dark powers of wish-granting.
After a fight with Dr. Minerva, who has transformed into a half-human, half-cheetah hybrid, Diana is able to stop Lord. I apologize for being vague on this point, but I actually did not understand how she did it, except by somehow appealing to the whole world to renounce their wishes. Then, moved by concern for his son Alistair, Lord renounces his own wish, and the total annihilation of the Earth is narrowly averted.
I omitted some details here and there–this movie has a lot of filler. Not that it’s bad material exactly, but many scenes go on for longer than they need to. The opening 15 minutes, with its two cool-but-superfluous opening sequences, sets the tone. Wonder Woman 1984 is many things, but “spare” is not one of them.
The cinematography started off really nice. The second opening sequence, in particular, features a full range of vibrant colors, but by the end it was back to the now-standard Hollywood palette of orange and blue.
On the other hand, I liked all the performances. Gal Gadot is a great Wonder Woman, and as in the first film, her chemistry with Chris Pine make their scenes together the best ones in the movie. Pedro Pascal is excellent as the smarmy con man who nonetheless has a really sympathetic side to him. And Kristen Wiig does a fantastic job portraying the rather tragic arc of Dr. Minerva’s transformation from an awkward, introverted woman driven by her desire for acceptance and respect to become a vindictive sadist.
So, what did I think of the movie? Well, for one thing, more than once while watching it, I said to myself “Patty Jenkins is the female George Lucas.” Interpret that as you will.
But my dominant impression on seeing the film, which coalesced in my mind while the faux-1980s static-filled credits were still rolling, was “That was the perfect film for 2020.”
I don’t mean that it was a perfect film. I’m not sure if there is any such thing as a perfect film, but if there is, Wonder Woman 1984 isn’t it. It’s frankly kind of a mess. How is Steve possessing the body of some random guy? Why did Diana and Steve steal a jet to fly to Egypt? How could Steve fly it? How did they get back? How did Dr. Minerva know Diana would be at the White House? Where was Alistair’s mother while her ex was becoming a famous megalomaniacal cult leader?
In the words of Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove, “By all accounts, it doesn’t make sense.”
Of course, things don’t always make sense even in real life, but people will accept inexplicable things in real life more readily than they will in fiction. When something totally bizarre happens in real life, we say, “well, c’est la vie!” Whereas when it happens in fiction, we can’t help but feel that some writer somewhere is trying to cheat us.
Well, what we writers do is make up elaborate falsehoods. Speaking of falsehoods, this is a good place to begin with studying the themes in this movie. There are lot of lines in it about truth, such as Diana’s:
Nothing good is born from lies. And greatness is not what you think.
And during the final showdown with Lord, she says:
This world was a beautiful place just as it was, and you cannot have it all. You can only have the truth. And the truth is enough. The truth is beautiful. So look at this world, and look at what your wish is costing it. You must be the hero. Only you can save the day. Renounce your wish if you want to save this world.
Ah, yes–the wish. It’s the magic wish-granting stone that’s causing all this trouble, after all. And, we are informed, it was a creation of the god Dolos, later known as the Duke of Deception, a character who first appeared in Wonder Woman Issue #2 in 1942.
Yeah, that’s cool. But my thinking runs more towards the mythopoetic. When I hear about some notorious liar purporting to grant wishes, there’s only one thing I think of: The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus.
All right, admittedly that’s Marlowe’s title, and when we think of Faust, we usually think of Goethe’s Faust. But it’s an old legend that predates them both and has survived them both. As Wikipedia says, “‘Faust’ and the adjective ‘Faustian’ imply a situation in which an ambitious person surrenders moral integrity in order to achieve power and success for a limited term.”
Basically, the magic stone is the Devil. It grants wishes, but the wishes are based on lies, and in the end they have a cost. Everyone is seduced by the tempting lies of the stone, even the wise and powerful Wonder Woman.
And everyone makes their wishes for the most noble-sounding reasons. Diana wants to have her lover back. Lord wants to build a better life for his son. Dr. Minerva wants to be treated with respect. Even minor characters, like the Emir who wants to secure his nation’s sovereignty or the President who wants to force the Russians to the negotiating table, have good reasons for wishing what they wish.
There’s some old saying about good intentions and roads… I can’t quite remember it, though…
I have a scale for evaluating superhero movies. At the top is Thor, which in my opinion is everything a superhero movie can aspire to be. It was directed by Shakespearean actor/director Kenneth Branagh, who imbued it with all the dramatic power we might expect from a student of the Bard. It’s about an arrogant young nobleman, forced to prove himself worthy of his family’s throne.
At the other end of the scale is… Thor: The Dark World. It is some nonsense related to Dark Elves or some such folderol. Aside from a few funny lines, it’s pretty weak stuff. (Coincidentally, Patty Jenkins was originally supposed to direct it.)
Wonder Woman 1984 is closer to Thor than to TheDark World. It’s not just a lot of special effects and mindless banter. It has a strong thematic core to it, even if it sometimes makes no logical sense at all. You know, at the risk of offending Goethe’s rabid fanboys, Faust doesn’t make total sense either. But we’re still talking about it, aren’t we?
“Yes, Berthold, that’s all very well,” you say. “But you still haven’t explained why you think this was ‘the perfect movie for 2020.’ Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
I promise, we’re getting there. Like Wonder Woman 1984 itself, I like to take my time about these things. Feel free to go to the lobby for more popcorn while I’m padding out this exposition.
Ever since I heard of the title, I wondered why this movie was set in 1984. Was it some sort of Orwell reference? Or maybe it’s because we are approximately the same number of years removed from 1984 as the original 1970s Wonder Woman TV show was from its 1940s setting? Or just a blatant appeal to nostalgia?
Well, I’m sure the studio loved the nostalgia angle. There’s always a market for nostalgia. There’s only one thing that sells better than it. The fact that the time gap is the same as with World War II in the original series is probably just a coincidence–although I really like the film’s nods to that show. Don’t miss this fantastic trailer, done in the retro comic-book style of the TV show’s credits. Honestly, they should have incorporated that aesthetic into the movie.
That leaves Orwell. Is there any way in which this silly superhero movie ties together with the bleak vision of a totalitarian surveillance state imagined by a disillusioned 20th-century socialist?
Hmm… well, the villains don’t work for the Ministry of Love. There’s no mention of the Thought Police. In fact, the government is generally portrayed as hapless bystanders, from the police at the mall all the way up to the feeble and bewildered President. I’m not seeing any Orwell parallels. (Orwellels?)
But there is one thing… remember that Lord takes over a top-secret satellite communications network that allows him to reach the entire world at once with his seductive message. This does remind me a bit of the tele-screens in Orwell’s novel, and the constantly looming presence of Big Brother.
It’s also a complete anachronism. The idea of a worldwide network conveying a message to everyone across the globe at once was pretty far-fetched in 1984. At best, you could reach every TV and radio. It’s not like everyone had some portable device, all connected to the same network.
In 2020, of course, this is everyday reality. Moreover, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that it has in fact driven the world completely mad. And it has done this how? By tempting us with things that we want. Like, frankly, the ability to propound our eccentric theories about movies to people everywhere, for one thing.
The magic stone’s spell is only broken when Wonder Woman, having renounced her own wish, is able to convince others to give up theirs, and ultimately Lord recants to save his son. Diana’s and Steve’s love for one another, and Lord’s love for his son, are what ultimately overpower the stone.
Thematically, Wonder Woman 1984 exemplifies one of the most fundamental themes in all of literature: love conquers all. Yes, even a diabolical wish-fulfillment network that spans the globe and tempts people with fantasies of conquering death and defeating age. Accepting death and rejecting power are some of the oldest ideas in mythology. Probably because these are some of the hardest things to do.
When I think about it in these terms, I want to say it’s a great movie. But it’s not. It is, as I said, kind of a mess. There are so many things that are bizarre and inexplicable. And above all, it’s way too long. All the same points applied to 2020 also.
It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.
So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.
My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.
I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.
Anyway, the story itself is very short. It’s about a ten-minute read. But Turpeinen packs a lot into those ten minutes. It begins with the title character transporting a captured killer. The killer tries to flee, causing their small plane to crash in the middle of the desert. They make their way to a ghost town, where the criminal begins having strange visions.
I won’t spoil the rest, but as it’s so short, and you don’t have to pay for it, there’s no reason not to give this book a try. I love weird westerns, and I love sci-fi, and this story contains a blend of both. It makes for a wonderful setting.
Now, obviously, the nature of the story precludes any major character development. The author openly admits that this was written as an experiment, and the book ends with a request to readers for feedback on whether it should be expanded into a longer story. My answer: yes, it absolutely should. There’s so much potential here; it is just crying out to be made into a fully-fleshed out world.
Read it for yourself. It won’t take long, and it’s a fun story.
My three pieces of feedback for the author are these: first, I see from his bio that he is a pilot. Very cool! Given that, it would be nice to have a longer scene with the bounty hunter and the criminal on the plane. I’m sure Turpeinen knows all sorts of details about flying that could make that into a really gripping part of the story.
Second… and this is a pet peeve of mine, but I see it all the time, including in books by big name authors and Hollywood movies. I may have even made this mistake myself, early in my writing career. But, when talking about firearms:
clip ≠ magazine
Now, I know–sometimes you want a short, one-syllable word, not a mouthful like magazine. In that case, I suggest “mag.”
That’s a super nit-pick, of course, but it’s something that always jumps out at me.
And finally, my last piece of feedback is simply “MORE!” I want to read more about these characters and this world. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating: this could be built upon in all sorts of ways, and there are a ton of interesting concepts teased here. I would be thrilled to read a novel or short story collection in this setting.
Gorman has also written a novel, American Chimera. I am reviewing it here, and you will note I am doing it in a slightly different style–that is, I am following the typical format Gorman uses for reviews. I’m doing this partly for fun and partly as a respectful tribute to what is quickly becoming a favorite book review site. If the author happens to read this, I want to make it clear that this is intended purely in the spirit of an homage from a fan.
On to the book itself.
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
Available for free at the author’s blog here.
And before we even dive in to the story, I have to pause to talk about the cover. What a masterful piece this! You know, perhaps, that I love yellow/gold on book covers, and combined with the lovely Art Deco aesthetic, it made me instantly interested. That this is a science-fiction book set in the future makes me like the retro-futuristic touch all the more. For that alone, this belongs to the canon of what I call early 21st-century techno-decadent art.
American Chimera is set in 2087 in the aftermath of a horrific war. It combines the elements of multiple genres, including sci-fi, horror, political thriller and a healthy dose of dark comedy. It is also told in an unusual style–much of the story comes in the form of the testimony from prisoners held at a secure government facility, relating their own perspectives on what happened as a result of a remarkable discovery a couple of them made one day.
Like all dystopian sci-fi, American Chimera uses its surreal premise to explore political and philosophical issues. There are dark themes woven throughout the story: prejudice, militarism, religion, climate change and more are all addressed in these pages. Most prominent of all are the ethics of experimentation on living beings: the central premise of the story has to do with bio-engineered super soldiers, in a world where populations are already suppressed through forced sterilizations. This book takes the reader to some dark, dark places.
But it’s never done in a heavy-handed way. The characters in this book, (with one minor exception) all feel like real people. Even the ones who appear at first impossible to relate to–from the seemingly-soulless government interrogator to the central character, who is the product of a perverse experiment–all become human and relatable as they tell their stories. At times, the book has a Rashomon-like quality, as the same events are told from different perspectives, revealing different facets and details.
The plot moves along nicely and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. There were a few sub-plots I wished could have been tied up more neatly, mostly because I loved the characters so much I wanted to hear more about what happened to them, but nevertheless, the overall story comes to a definite resolution.
Ah, now this is a feature of Gorman’s reviews that I don’t use: a numeric rating system. It would be a step too far to appropriate Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale. There’s a fine line between paying admiring homage and shameless copycattery, but that would cross it.
And yet… the form does demand a number be assigned, even though that’s not my usual style on this blog. I struggle to reduce my feelings for a book to quantitative terms. I would give both The King in Yellow and Right Ho, Jeeves five out of five stars or whatever, and yet this does not imply that I think anyone who enjoys the one would necessarily enjoy the other.
Besides, is there any such thing as a perfect book (5/5), or a perfectly imperfect book (0/5)? I had a few minor quibbles with American Chimera (see below)–what implications should that hold for its numerical score? While every single element in the book might not be exactly what I’d choose, the overall impression is of a magisterial, brilliant, thrilling and surprisingly poignant work of genius that quickly proved impossible to put down. What score, exactly, reflects that?
Enough of this navel-gazing! “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius said. As a special, one-night-only event–my rating, in classically Gambrellian terms:
The story begins with two poor rural people discovering a mysterious egg that has fallen out of the back of a truck. The couple, Brett and Janie, are under the influence of some mind-altering substances, and suppose that what they’ve found is a dragon’s egg. However, it soon hatches, revealing not a dragon, but a gigantic spider–a spider that wails like a human baby.
Desperate for help, they take the creature to the local vet, who, against her better judgment, helps them treat the being they ultimately name Daenerys–Dani, for short.
Dani soon makes it clear that she has the mind of a human girl trapped inside the body of a spider. Brett and Janie do their best to raise her by painstakingly convincing the local community of her friendliness. It helps that Dani is a sweet, good-natured soul–but even that doesn’t win over everyone, such as the local preacher.
All this is told through the framing device of a government interrogator, bringing each of the witnesses in for questioning at a remote government prison in Nevada. Brett, Janie, the veterinarian, the preacher, Dani’s best friend Stacy and more are all questioned about how this remarkable series of events occurred.
It’s a critical problem, because the United States has recently emerged from a war known as the Chimera War, in which North Korea created monstrous ape-like chimera super soldiers. The war ended with a treaty banning such abominations, but of course–as always happens–governments carried out such research anyway. After all, there could always be a “chimera gap.” However, if such research became widely known, it would inevitably spark another war.
What stuck out to me most is how real the characters are. Everyone feels so believable and so interesting. And, with a few exceptions, most of them are basically good people. Sometimes they do awful things, but it feels like they are doing them because this monstrous system they are in forces them to do it.
The best illustration I can think of is a scene where Stacy’s aunt Jen is returning home from the war. Stacy and Dani have gone to greet her, but when Jen sees the spider-girl, she is horrified; knowing it’s a chimera, and realizing that after all she suffered, all her comrades died for, their own government has cynically betrayed everything they thought they were fighting for.
What’s astonishing about this part is how you can empathize with both sides–Dani, who is after all just a normal person trapped in a fiendish form, feels bad that she’s perceived as a monster. And yet it makes sense Jen would react the way she does.
All the characters are like this, leading to a world that feels incredibly well-realized and believable.
Well, I should say almost all the characters. There’s one fairly minor character, a football player at Dani and Stacy’s high school, who is kind of flat.
I understand why he’s in the story, because on his own, he’s quite funny in a sad sort of way. He’s a completely self-absorbed narcissist who can’t even manage to reveal useful information when subjected to interrogation, simply because he’s so oblivious to anything outside himself. And there’s no question, many of his lines are grimly amusing.
It’s just that he feels like a caricature. An entertaining caricature, to be sure, but in a book otherwise populated by real people, he sticks out like a sore thumb.
That’s one of two minor criticisms. The other is that the ending–while extremely effective and generally satisfying–felt a little bit rushed and didn’t tie-up all the other characters arcs as much as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like this doesn’t come to a satisfying end, because it absolutely does, but, because all the characters were so good, I would have liked to hear more from them. But maybe that would be true no matter how long the book was.
It’s funny–I’ve written quite a bit here, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes this book so interesting. There are so many layers, I feel like I could write a whole review focusing on just one aspect of it. So many deep themes, so little time.
It’s a dark, disturbing and violent book. Not for the faint of heart, as the disclaimer at the beginning makes clear. And yet, at the same time, I think everyone should give it a try. This is one of those supremely strange but incredibly good books you find sometimes, like The Master and Margarita or Hyperlink from Hell. Above all, don’t be put off just because one character is a giant spider. I am a card-carrying arachnophobe myself, but even I ended up rooting for Dani.
And the book is free to read on the author’s blog! Let me repeat: free! Can anyone doubt the sheer love of writing an author must have, to weave such a magnificent tale and put it out into the world for free? Oh, read it already, my friends! For this is the art of storytelling in its purest form, and should not go unrecognized. If you like sci-fi, or dystopias, or horror, or political thrillers, or just plain good fiction, please read American Chimera.
Oh, my sci-fi loving friends, what a treat we have today! I hardly know where to begin. Should I start with the excellent cast of main characters? Maybe so. There’s Viekko Spade, the Martian warrior with a white hat and a long braid, and two 1911 pistols. He’s a classic pulp protagonist–a hard-drinking, hard-living, rough-hewn tough guy. I love his gruff way of speaking and his habit of swearing in Martian.
Then there’s Althea Fallon, Viekko’s former lover, the highly competent medical officer who does her best to manage Viekko’s dangerous addictions, and Cronus, a computer expert who lacks the martial talents of the others, but makes up for it with his skill with computers.
The team is led by Isra Jicarrio, a hard-driving, powerful and often stubborn woman, who tries her best to control them, which is no easy task.
But maybe it doesn’t make sense to introduce the whole crowd without talking about the situation they’re in. Yes, I should have started with that–they are exploring Titan, the moon of Saturn, which is now a wasteland left behind in the desolation of a massive civilizational collapse. There, they find two warring factions, fighting over the remnants of what was once a mighty empire.
Speaking of that mighty empire–did I mention that every chapter starts with an epigraph from a fictional text about the collapse of the empires? Here’s a quote from the first one: “It could be that civilization is an inherently destructive force. A kind of virus that consumes and destroys everything around it and, when it can no longer sustain itself, commits suicide.”
I love, love, love it when authors use fictional texts as a world-building device. It’s practically like getting two books in one, at least when it’s done well. And is it ever done well here.
So there are two native groups fighting each other on Titan, and throw into that mix a mega-corporation that intends to conquer Titan to exploit its resources. This is the fraught environment in which the four protagonists must try to survive against dangers of every imaginable sort.
This book is everything I look for in sci-fi. Deep philosophical concepts mix with exciting action sequences. (The climax of the book in particular is a pulse-pounding page-turner, but even then, there’s a brief pause to reflect on the meaning of history. Just amazing stuff.) There’s even a tinge of horror in the scenes involving the Venganto–winged demonic figures that patrol the night skies of Titan.
The plot is perfectly paced and the writing is crisp–the characters each have distinctive ways of speaking, from Viekko’s hardboiled drawl to Cronus’s techno-philosophical flights of oratory. More than once, I stopped to savor a particularly well-turned phrase, both in dialogue and in description.
This is science-fiction at its best. Reading it felt kind of like how it must have felt to see Star Wars in 1977, or read Dune in 1965. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, you say to yourself.
Except they do. This book was published in 2018. Maybe someday it will get popular enough they will make a movie out of it. I’d love to watch it. In the meantime, though, you need to read this book. This isn’t quite the end of the review, but we’re at the part now where I’m going to nit-pick and rant about my personal hobbyhorses, so you might as well bail out and nab this book before reading the rest of this.
Right, so first of all, at one point they call a weapon’s magazine a “clip.” This is super-common. But it drives me nuts. There is such a thing as a clip, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when someone says “clip,” they mean “magazine.” See Peter Martuneac’s blog for a visual clarification.
Second thing: covers. The cover above is seemingly the most recent and therefore “official” cover for this book. But it’s not the cover that made me buy this book when I saw it on Goodreads. No, that would be this:
Now, it’s true, these covers aren’t that different. To the extent they are, the new one is more polished. But I like the unpolished-ness of the yellow one better. Directly I saw it, I said “Wow, that looks like a 1930s pulp cover!” The top one is a fine cover, but it doesn’t radiate that vibe that says, “You are looking at a treasure from a bygone era.”
But you know what they say about books and covers and judging. Of course, we all do it anyway. I judged this book by its cover, and thought it looked pretty cool. And I was right. If anything, I under-estimated just how cool it was. This is a fantastic novel that could have easily been from the Golden Age of sci-fi. I take my hat off to Mr. Jones, because he’s created something really, really special here, and his work deserves to be widely read.