Monday, October 24, 2016

Microreview [book]: Blade of the Destroyer by Andy Peloquin

A Dulled Blade

Blade of the Destroyer is pure video game material, from beginning to end. As a huge fan of video games, you would think I'd enjoy that. You would be wrong. 

The Hunter is an immortal assassin. He moves among the populace of Voramis with dozens of disguises and kills for contracts. He's also motivated to murder by a supernatural dagger in his possession that whispers in his head to kill. However, a couple of contracts put him in the path of forces even he can't handle alone and he suddenly finds himself as one of the hunted.

Within the first couple chapters, I could tell that I was not going to enjoy Blade of the Destroyer. It was really hard to place at first, but it didn't take me too long to figure it out. It's a really clumsily written novel. The dialog is written in a way that no person would ever speak out loud. The world it's in is an array of basic fantasy tropes. Everything about it is predictable. 

A lot of my problems with the book is with The Hunter himself. Of course, this character that murders without recourse is a dark, brooding sort that lives with the homeless population. And he can't be killed because all of his wounds regenerate, except for a single particular weakness. He can't remember his history, so the reader doesn't need to know anything about him except that he's essentially invulnerable, kills a lot of people, and has some moral code in that there are some people he won't kill and ladies he won't bed. 

Speaking of ladies, the number of women in this story who aren't nameless whores could be counted on one hand. One is a child, another is an old woman, none of them could be described as well-developed characters, and nearly all of them die violently and it's often in support of pushing The Hunter to action. I don't expect every novel I read to be particularly progressive, but Blade of the Destroyer is exceptionally unkind to women. 

The best I could compare Blade of the Destroyer to is a video game. The Hunter murders his way through a predictable story to a violent conclusion, complete with huge lore dumps in the middle chapters to fill in the details of the world that should be woven throughout. This novel inherits one of the video game media's weaknesses in that it's a poorly written story. In video games, this is often easy to overlook because the game can have more going for it like engaging gameplay or beautifully rendered art. A poorly written novel isn't worth much at all, and Blade of the Destroyer is poorly written.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 3/10

Bonuses: Nada

Penalties: -1 it's yet another story of male violence that fridges a woman to motivate its protagonist

Nerd Coefficient: 2/10 (really really bad)


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Peloquin, Andy. Blade of the Destroyer [J. Ellington Ashton Press, 2015] 

Friday, October 21, 2016

Interview: Matthew Irvine on Carnival of Souls

Matthew Irvine is a film professor, producer, and director. He is also the rights-holder to one of my all-time favorite cult films, Carnival of Souls. The movie was made in 1962 by a team of filmmakers in Kansas who worked together making industrial and educational films for their day-jobs, and decided to make a feature film after director Herk Harvey found an abandoned amusement park in Utah. It had a quiet reputation as a gem of truly independent horror films, but for years, collective wisdom held that the film was in the public domain, so terrible copies of it proliferated. But now there's an unbelievably gorgeous version out from the Criterion Collection that just arrived in stores. I got to talk with Matthew about how he got involved with the movie, and some of the backstory behind how we got here.

NF: What's your connection to Carnival of Souls? What drew you to it?

MI: I got involved in the film a long time ago when I got out of film school. A few people including my manager, thought my MFA Thesis film had a tone to it similar to this old cult film called Carnival of Souls. I had never seen the film until my Thesis film was screened at the Tokyo International Student Film Festival. While there, a few audience members, usually older folks, wanted to talk with me about my film as it gave them the same feelings that this old film did back in the early 1960’s, Carnival of Souls. The funny thing was that the non-Japanese people at the fest didn’t really respond to my film, so I guess you could say I was “big in Japan” for a short time. When I got back to the states I made sure I got a hold of CoS (on VHS I believe) and finally watched it. At the same time that was happening, I was stating to work with Peter Soby, Jr. who was at Shoreline Pictures, I believe. He saw my film and the two of us connected right away. As fate would have it, he was involved in getting a sequel to CoS made. So, my connection all kind of came from that. I wrote what I thought was a damn good and faithful sequel and it eventually landed at Trimark Pictures. Well, at least the concept of doing a sequel did. My understanding was that Trimark got Wes Craven interested in lending his name to the making of a sequel and when that happened,’s a common story of how people get their first entry into the business. My friends Steve Jones and John McNaughton told me that you have one choice on how you enter the film business and that is to either bend over or lay down because either way, you’re gonna get screwed. Being from Chicago though, I didn’t take kindly to that so I pursued obtaining all rights to the film as the Trimark pictures sequel was a one-off. Peter Soby and I hired an attorney to do a chain of title on the film to make sure the film was not in public domain, as many people falsely believe it is. The chain came back totally clean and we went directly to Herk Harvey and John Clifford and offered to purchase the negative and all rights to the film.

NF: At that time, did CoS already have the reputation of being a public domain film?

MI: I made sure it was NOT in public domain before I pursued the rights. The film has been floating around for some time with the belief that it is Public Domain but that is just not the case. We have done cease and desist actions over the years because people think it is in Public Domain. There are still those that could care less whether it is in Public Domain or not, they are going to do what they want with what they have to make a buck. Most every dvd, even the “colorized” version are from crappy prints that are not worth watching, IMHO. Peter and I just expected that there are people that will never be convinced that the film is not in Public Domain. Not everyone thinks that way though. A lot of people have approached us over the years asking if they could screen the film at festivals here and there and we almost always grant the request as long as no money is involved because I like to know the film is still being shown and appreciated. It screened at the Louvre a couple years ago and they contacted me before they included the film in their film retrospective. Of course I said yes. I think Herk would be pretty proud to know that his film screened at the most famous art museum in the world.

NF: Do you know where the public domain assumption came from? How did you go about finding the chain of title and verifying it was still protected?

MI: There was a bankruptcy thing that occurred where the distributor closed shop and it was assumed that CoS was part of their library, which it was not. But Herk and John had real jobs and did not have the time to pursue anything legally until interest in the film was revived in the late 90’s. They then did a director’s cut of the film and re-established copyright ownership on the film and story. The negative was being stored at the Eastman House in New York and all other elements to the film were with Herk and John in Kansas.
Herk Harvey, director and head spook in Carnival of Souls

NF: There are a number of other DVD releases — including at least one colorized one you mentioned — from video distributors that specialize in Public Domain films. When Criterion initially released the film on DVD, were they aware that it was still under copyright protection?

MI: Yes. We made that deal with them originally, but through MPI Media as an intermediary. MPI made an agreement with Peter and myself, and then made a deal with Criterion for a remastered DVD. I provided all the elements for that release and it was done with my full cooperation. Unfortunately I didn’t see a dime from that but I didn’t get involved in CoS to get rich, I got involved because it was a film worth saving and treating with respect and care.

NF: What went into creating this blu-ray release? What was the process like for restoring the film and working with Criterion?

MI: The Academy Archives did the remastering of the negative. And I believe Criterion worked with them on the Blu-Ray. I know the people who did the restoration and they love the film and treated every frame as though it were Citizen Kane.

NF: It's the rare totally independent horror film that rises to the status of curation alongside Bergman and Kurosawa movies. I mean, it's definitely rough around the edges, but the movie seems to sort of rise above. What do you think it is about Carnival of Souls that makes it a standout when so many films of similar pedigree were only at their best when they were fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000 (RiffTrax has tackled CoS but the movie stands alone - ed)?

MI: I think it was the way it was shot. Herk wanted to make a different film. Different from what most “Hollywood” films were like. I think this helped influence the way it was shot. It really has a weird tone to it. Yes, it is cheesy in spots but it only adds to the overall surreal quality to the movie, in my opinion.

NF: When can we expect Herk Harvey action figures in the Entertainment Earth catalog? Or, what's next for the film?

MI: We have been talking about doing a straight-remake of the movie for some time now. We actually have a couple producers interested. But at this point, I’m like I don’t care to make a schlocky remake for a fast buck; that already happened (Wes Craven allowed his name to be put over the title in a 1999 re-imagining of the movie that should be avoided at all costs. - ed.). If we do a remake it will be something worthy of the original film. Something that is different, weird, creepy, original. Something that would make Herk proud. I don’t have “Fuck You” money but I do have “Fuck You” time. I have been involved in CoS for so long that I won’t do anything with it until the right people come along and want to treat it seriously, like Criterion and the Blu-Ray. We had other offers for a Blu-Ray release but went with Criterion because, they’re like the Cadillac of that particular film market.

Posted by Vance K - cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012, musician, and Emmy-winning producer.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Thursday Morning Superhero

We just wrapped up the third and final debate and don't know either of the candidates' stance on comic books.  Marvel has re-imagined Donald Trump as a super villain, but the Marvel CEO has made campaign contributions to the Donald.  That leads me to believe that Trump is a Marvel fan and is looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 this next summer.  Did you see that trailer?   Hopefully we can have some additional insight on this crucial topic in the next few weeks so I can make an informed decision.

Pick of the Week:
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #13 - Sometimes when you are home sick with the flu you just want a simple book about a superhero who can talk to squirrels, a villain who splits in two every time he is hit, and a kidnapped Ant-Man for undisclosed purposes.  While I am still relatively new to this series, I know what title I am going to go back and read on Marvel Unlimited.  This issue was a lot of smart and chaotic fun that I can't recommend enough.  One of my buddies has been telling me this for over a year and I have picked up an issue or two, but I think it is time to add this series to my pull-list.  Bring on the Squirrel Girl movie!!!

The Rest:
Dirk Gentley's Holistic Detective Agency: The Salmon of Doubt #1 - I had no idea of what to expect from this title, other than it seemed like a quirky detective series that I believe was recently picked up for a television show.  Based on Douglas Adams' character created after the end of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this series promises to be a whole lot of fun.  After reading the first issue, I feel like I have be transported back in time to an old Lupin III manga.  Dirk's style and attitude remind me of the famous detective, but the addition of the supernatural provides a unique spin for it.  I wanted more to happen in this series, but had my interest piqued enough to return for the second issue.  Arvind Ethan David definitely has developed some unique characters that could make this book something special.

Dept H #7 - Matt and Sharlene Kindt's underwater mystery continues with an intense issue that still doesn't get to the bottom of who may have killed Mia's father.  Due to sabotage, the crew is in grave danger as many compartments of their facility are filling with water.  In addition to the malfunctions the crew is dealing with, there is a virus on the loose that could kill thousands, if not millions, if it is brought to the surface.  Despite this, the Kindts managed to put together a serene issue that shed valuable insight into one of the crew members who seems on the up and up.  Learning more about about Mia's father and his studies has been one of the most rewarding aspects of this series.

POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

PERSPECTIVES V: Voices in Science Fiction & Fantasy

Welcome to Perspectives V!

Here’s how it works: an editoral, opinion piece, or critical essay written by an external blogger, critic, journalist, or creative person is presented by a regular contributor to nerds of a feather, flock together; it is then answered by other regular 'nerds of a feather, flock together' contributors. Crucially, each respondent will also respond to each preceding respondent. This time around, for a change of pace we use a new collection, not another article, as our jumping-off point. This episode's cast o' characters:

Vance K (Respondent #1)

Vance is the co-editor and usually cult-film reviewer for ‘nerds of a feather, flock together.’ He records loud folk songs under the name Sci-Fi Romance, and writes and directs things for a living.

Charles Payseur (Respondent #2)

Charles is an avid reader, reviewer, and writer of speculative fiction and poetry. Most of his time and energy goes into maintaining Quick Sip Reviews and being a general nuisance on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo. He's contributed to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

The G (Respondent #3)

The G is founder and co-editor of 'nerds of a feather, flock together.' In his spare time, he makes synthwave music. Find him on twitter @nerds_feather.

EPISODE 5: In which three nerds tackle the battle over the direction of today's sci-fi and fantasy with the help of some historical perspective

This month, The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund published a new collection called She Changed Comics (link here), which profiles 60 female comics creators from the dawn of the medium until the present day. Coming out as the book does in the current social atmosphere, telling the long story of the impact a marginalized group of creators had on a medium and the ways in which their voices helped shape and re-define the kinds of stories that are told and the ways in which they are told has tremendous resonance for the present day. With the Hugo Awards embroiled in a years-long struggle between individuals with different views of what science fiction and fantasy should look like now and in the future, and the raging inferno of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and one candidate's appeal to reject out-of-control political correctness, this is a conversation that has huge ramifications both inside and outside of genre circles.

Vance K

I reject the notion of "the good old days."

I think that pretty much any period of history people can point at and say "those were the good old days," either socially or in media like comic books or elsewhere, can be pointed to by another group of people who could say "those were the darkest days of my life." Like Louis C.K. said, time travel only works if you're white. If you're a black time traveler, you can't really go back to any time before 1980.

The gifted short story author James Tiptree Jr. counted Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and other fixtures in the sci-fi pantheon as contemporaries. But James Tiptree Jr. was in actuality Alice Bradley Sheldon, and she had to use a male pseudonym because publishers wouldn't even consider science fiction written by women. Sheldon was a fantastic writer, and another of her contemporaries, Shirley Jackson, remains one of my favorite authors. But there were undoubtedly female writers who were just as gifted and yet were never published. Or budding writers who were told that girls didn't write that kind of thing...or write at all. And selfishly, as a fan, I'm really sad about the stories that stayed in those pens and that I'll never get to read.

But I get it — I understand the pull of that kind of "good old days" thinking. Somewhere, usually in childhood, something struck sparks in that place in our hearts lined with kindling, and we chase after that feeling for the rest of our lives. That's normal. Back in May, NPR did an interview with former Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan where he said that he wanted "an America like the country I grew up in, which was a pretty good country." It was a pretty good country for him, I'm sure, and one in which he felt safe and protected. But take a look at the pictures by Swiss photographer Robert Frank, who crisscrossed the United States in the 1950s and documented what he saw. Collected in his book The Americans, which was brutally panned at the time, shows a much less rosy picture of the "idyllic" 1950s, where "everybody" lived in nice suburban homes and respected their elders and lived like Leave it to Beaver.

For me, what it comes down to is "Who gets to tell their story?" The 1950s zeitgeist prized homogeneity; that's why the houses all looked the same, and there were rigid social roles that people were expected to keep up or else. I was talking to an old police lieutenant a few weeks ago, and he told me that when he started with his force about thirty years ago, the guys with as many years on then as he has now all started working in the 50s, and they went to so, so, so many suicide calls. And I think that's because it takes an unreal toll on someone to pretend to be something they're not. It's only now that we're beginning to crack the lid on that box and get a glimmer of all the ways people and their experiences can be different, and all the ways that they've had to contort over the years to pretend they were just like everybody else. The people that looked the same, acted the same, thought the same, they were the ones that got to tell their stories. But that left a lot of voices out.

People like Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin, who are writing some of the most compelling SF/F today, they didn't get to tell their stories then. But now they can. And it's still an uphill climb for too, too many people, but as a reader, my experience of the world has always been broadened and enriched by what I've read. I feel like getting to hear stories from more and different voices helps scrub away some of my ignorance of the world and its many, many facets, and I feel like that's a gift. So I for one am excited that we can read Raina Telgemeier's and Marjane Satrapi's comics, despite people who want to silence them. I think a broader understanding of the world and the people in it is only to our benefit, and I'm personally excited about the broader direction that genre fiction seems to be heading.

Charles Payseur

I come to the discussion about the "State of SFF" from a strange place. Well, not really. I come to the discussion from a place that a great, great many people do. From the outside. Not because I haven't been a fan of SFF my entire life. I have. Not because I don't participate in SFF fandom. I do. Not because I don't create SFF. I am a SFF fiction writer, a SFF poet, and a SFF reviewer and nonfiction writer. That said, I do not come to this discussion from within SFF. Despite my participation in SFF and my engagement with it, I hold very little power in SFF. And when I talk about SFF, when I write it and when I read it, I'm doing so from the outside looking in. Because I do not get to define what SFF is. Because I do not get to choose what SFF gets published. Because at times I cannot even pay to have access to the stories that I want to read, much less get paid for the stories I want to tell.

I am queer. I write SFF romance and erotica and poetry as well as more "mainstream" stories. I argue that the SFF canon needs to be thrown out the window. I hate institutional genre distinction and segregation. I somewhat recently read Melissa Scott's Trouble and Her Friends for the first time. I love how that novel shows what difference can do within groups of people. In the novel, Trouble is part of a group of queer hackers who find themselves hated by the larger hacker community because they are "political." Political meaning because they are queer and because they cannot separate their queerness from their hacking. Likewise, the most pervasive complaints I hear when people talk about the "State of SFF" (and the state of the country, the world, and probably beyond) is the terror of political correctness. But what does it mean to be political? Are you political if you vote? Well, not for the swaths of the country that talk about political correctness like it's some new form of terrorism. They can just vote. Is it being passionate about something, about SFF? Again, not for those who bemoan the SJWs in their SFF. They can just be passionate. So then, being "political" has nothing to do with what you do. It has to do with who you are.

And let me say this. Political correctness, as some call it, hurts no one. It does the opposite of hurt people. The only claim I have seen as to the harm done by political correctness is that it stops certain stories from being written. That people are, essentially, censored. People tell me I get worked up about things, which I suppose is a big step up from being told I'm hysterical. Because calling someone hysterical is a threat. It pulls from a history where a man could have a woman institutionalized for being too political. Too passionate. It's a reminder of that, a sort of wistful "back in the good old days" sort of thing. Ah, back in the good old days when slavery was legal, when women could not own property, when being queer was a crime. Evoking the good old days before we got all uppity and politically correct is a threat. Maybe you don't hear it when the words leave your mouth. But you can be damn sure that other people do.

But sorry, back to censorship. Back to the evils of political correctness. Back to the "State of SFF." Those stories, those victims of the PC police…they should not be written. Stopping them, far from being the greatest crime of humanity, is actually a good being done. Just like someone deciding not to tell a racist joke because it "might not go over well" is a good thing. Not engaging in "locker room talk" is a good thing. Not writing stories that will hurt people, that perpetuate the continued oppression, exploitation, and violence against marginalized groups…is a good fucking thing. The "real victims" are not those who suddenly have to consider their words. The real victims, as always, are the people being murdered for who they are. Are the people being reminded at every turn that they should be grateful for being alive and so should be quiet. Should stop being so political.

What is the state of SFF? It needs work. It needs to sit down and examine its past, present, and future. To see the good there, yes, definitely. To recognize the harm, though, as well. And to do something about it. People are already engaged in so much amazing work toward just that. Un-erasing those who have been pushed out of the SFF narrative, just as this work seems to be seeking to un-erase the women instrumental to comic book history. Crafting new and affirming and incredibly imaginative stories. Holding people responsible for their words and actions. Creating a field, a fandom, and a profession that I aspire to be a part of. And if that bothers you—if you weep for the stories that might not be told because we're "too politically correct" but don't weep for the stories that were not told because we were and are too racist, misogynist, ableist, queerphobic, and otherwisely terrible…then you are part of the problem.

The G
Around the time I took driver’s ed, Wendy’s introduced a new burger called the Cheddar Melt, which featured grilled onions, cheese sauce and mayo. Since there was a Wendy’s right by the driver’s ed school, I basically ate that thing every day for a week. And to sixteen-year-old me, the cheddar melt was pretty much the best thing ever invented, even if it was actually just an industrially produced meat patty smothered in an unnaturally liquefied substance with a passing resemblance to cheese. Oh, and it wasn’t even original; McDonald’s had made the same exact burger famous a decade prior. And people ten years older than me remember it in pretty much the same terms.

You may be wondering what this has to do with anything, but check it: the way we remember the science fiction and fantasy of our youth is not unlike the way we remember those discontinued fast-food items, like the Wendy’s Cheddar Melt. They excited us then because they were new, and because we were new to making our own choices, and because our tastes and understandings of the world were not sophisticated or jaded by experience and disenchantment.

And then when it’s gone and you are also gone from that place and time, you remember it in terms of how it felt, always wonder if you can get that feeling back. Like with Heinlein, who took you places—important places, even—when you were still young and unformed. Even though he’s the proverbial McRib of genre fiction.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to be a snob here, or pooh-pooh that youthful sense of wonder. I was really into Isaac Asimov and David Eddings as a 12-15 year-old, and while neither is much of a writer, both authors played important roles in shaping me as a reader. And because of that, I’ll always remember those reading experiences fondly.

But you know what? The last time I was in Indonesia, I saw that Wendy’s had the Cheddar Melt back on the local menu, so I bought one. And it tasted like what it was: an industrially produced meat patty smothered in an unnaturally liquefied substance with a passing resemblance to cheese.

...which is a roundabout way of saying that you can’t go back, and even if you could, you probably wouldn’t feel the same way about things as you did then. Even nostalgic movements—and I am an active participant in one such movement—are at their best when they use the toolkit of the past to create something new. That has meaning and value, but it has meaning and value in large part because it is something new, and responsive to new conditions. By contrast, it’s just not possible to turn back the clock and return to the lost golden age, which never existed as such anyway.

That being said, I don’t idealize the present state of genre either. In fact I share the grievance that genre and popular genre awards have become insular and overly predicable affairs; it’s just that pups n' co. completely misdiagnose the problem.

As I see it, long- and short-form SF/F suffer from quite different problems. The novel field strikes me as overly risk-averse (with notable exceptions). Predictable series—many of which are just rehashes of or sequels to earlier series—rule over self-contained novels, a problem that afflicts other media as well. And while literary genre does exist, there isn’t very much of it—a consequence of publishing’s economic structure, which does not reward risk-taking, but rather risk-avoidance.

Notably, incentives for risk-avoidance benefit the exact kind of novel the puppies claim are being pushed off-stage. Light, action-oriented summer blockbuster-type fare dominates bookstore shelves, Amazon rankings and popular award lists alike. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s what people want, after all. And some of it is quite good (Old Man’s War, for example).

But what about the Hugo Awards? Don’t they reward literary over popular works?
No, disembodied rhetorical voice. They do not.

As Chaos Horizon notes, during the period 2001-2014, literary SF/F accounted for a mere 5.56% of nominations in the novel category. Big selling, in-genre novels that innovate along the margins are the order of the day, far more often than not. If you don’t write that kind of novel, you are unlikely to make a Hugo shortlist, and that goes for literary SF/F as much or more as blockbuster-style space opera.

Short fiction suffers from a very different kind of problem. The market for short SF/F is much smaller, and a far greater proportion of readers are also writers. At the same time, the prestige magazines and websites that publish the bulk of shortlisted stories increasingly resemble one another in terms of what they publish, and increasingly publish the same group of writers. And this, in turn, creates incentives for new writers to produce the same kinds of stories, resulting in an abiding sameness across the field.

Here pups n' co. approach a legitimate point, which is to say that there is form of “literary” gatekeeping potentially crowding out other modes of storytelling. Yet once again, they misdiagnose the problem, this time as political conspiracy when the problem is institutional. And the gatekeeping mechanism is form and approach not the identity or politics of the writer. (See: Jonathan McCalmont's writing on this issue). Meanwhile, the alternative they present, of bang-bang futureman action stories, is as uninspiring as it is regressive.

As I wrote last year:

Genre needs more outlets that eschew formulas, or at least try new ones. More to the point, it needs more outlets that don’t give a shit about conventions or consensus.

But that’s a way forward, not backwards. The same cannot be said for entitled whining about women and minorities gaining visibility as authors, critics and consumers. The broadening of perspectives on SF/F to include previously marginalized or underrepresented voices, is, in my opinion, the one unequivocal marker of progress in the field. If that's "PC," then, well, let's hear it for PC.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

ESSENTIALS: 24 Cult Films for Late, Late Nights

I feel like I should preface any list of "Best" cult films or "Most Important" cult films with the disclaimer that there is no list. The thing that makes cult films memorable is that they are a representation of a unique voice, and different voices appeal to different people. Plus, there are just so, so many movies out there, nobody can see them all. If you've got a film that you (or you and your friends) love and quote and everybody else thinks you're nuts, I think you're doing the thing right, and it doesn't matter if that movie's on a list anywhere or not.

The other key thing about cult films is that they are usually produced outside of the mainstream, so a lot of lists of "Best Cult Films" that I see online are rehashes of movies like The Big Lebowski or Office Space, which were box office flops, but gained a second life through word-of-mouth after their disappointing theatrical runs. I love both of those movies, and they certainly have cult followings — Office Space prompted Swingline to actually make a red stapler, and The Big Lebowski started a religion — but now they're so well-known I don't need to invoke them here.

Since I get to make this list, I wanted to focus on movies that didn't show up on the other lists. I also wanted to stay away from "The Worst Movie Ever" kinds of films (plus, I already covered that ground), and try to share movies that I think are legitimately good, or moving, or compelling, even if you can see their seams sometimes.

These are in no particular order, but they are all perfect for late nights or rainy days:

1. Carnival of Souls

After a traumatic accident, a woman becomes drawn to a mysterious abandoned carnival. - IMDb

Mistakenly thought to be in the public domain for decades and widely available in grainy, garbled versions, Carnival of Souls has a new blu-ray release from Criterion with restored picture and sound that really shows off this movie for what it is. It's a legitimately eerie movie, beautifully shot, full of evocative imagery and intelligent subtext. This movie also has special significance for me, because seeing the original Criterion Collection release of this movie alongside films by Renoir, Godard, Kurosawa, and Bergman was the first time I really understood that cult films didn't have to be a guilty pleasure. That release made me realize that there were other people like me who loved both art house cinema and outsider cinema and took them equally seriously.

2. Chimes at Midnight

The career of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff as roistering companion to young Prince Hal, circa 1400-1413. - IMDb

For many years, the crown jewel of my DVD collection has been a DVD-R of this movie, which was only briefly released on VHS and was extremely difficult to find and even more difficult to own. But this is another movie that Criterion has recently rescued from the pit of abysmal picture and sound quality. And good thing, too. This movie and the never-completed Don Quixote were Orson Welles' dream projects. Constructed from texts pulled from four Shakespeare plays, Welles made John Falstaff, who has more lines than any other character in Shakespeare, the tragic hero of his own movie. The larger-than-life Welles plays the larger than life mentor to Prince Hal, later King Henry, and the thread of wasted talent and unbridled excess that runs through the film cannot help but reflect on the former boy-wonder of Welles himself. It is a movie that was financially and logistically hard to make and it shows, but it is full of stunning images, and a truly heart-rending conclusion.

3. A Bucket of Blood

A frustrated and talentless artist finds acclaim for a plaster covered dead cat that is mistaken as a skillful statuette. Soon the desire for more praise leads to an increasingly deadly series of works. - IMDb

I will go to the mat with anybody who says Roger Corman isn't a good director. He's certainly known as a producer of exploitation films and for launching the careers of people who went on to be iconic directors, but his directorial work (which he pretty much stopped doing in the late-1970s) was extremely sharp, both in terms of visual style and intelligence. A Bucket of Blood is one of the best satirical take-downs of the art scene I think I've ever watched, and it wraps it inside the costume of a schlocky horror movie. It's funny, full of gentle social commentary, and has just enough of an "ick" factor to create some intentionally cringe-worthy moments. If you've ever wanted to see the Beat Generation get some comeuppance, this one's for you.

4. Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill

Three go-go dancers holding a young girl hostage come across a crippled old man living with his two sons in the desert. After learning he's hiding a sum of cash around, the women start scheming on him. - IMDb

I'm much more of a Corman guy than a Russ Meyer guy, but when it comes to exploitation films, you have to give Russ Meyer his due. Meyer is most closely associated with busty women with quick tops, but there's actually no nudity in this, his best-known movie. Busty women, sure, and car races, and inexplicable danger aplenty. This movie is also notable for being the source of most of the movie dialogue samples used in White Zombie's breakout album La Sexorcisto: Devil Music, Vol. 1. That's actually what got me to watch this movie in the first place.

5. Blacula

An ancient African prince, turned into a vampire by Dracula himself, finds himself in modern Los Angeles. - IMDb

There are a lot of 1970s blaxploitation movies you can watch and have a pretty great time with, but the thing I love about Blacula is how William Marshall's performance really elevates this movie way past what you think it would be from the amazingly schlocky title. He was primarily a Shakespearean actor, plays the character of Prince Mamuwalde totally straight, and sells it. This movie is at its heart a love story, and despite some *ahem* lines that ring out particularly jarringly to modern sensibilities, the performances in this movie should earn it far more prominence among horror fans than I think it currently has.

6. Killer of Sheep

Stan works in drudgery at a slaughterhouse. His personal life is drab. Dissatisfaction and ennui keep him unresponsive to the needs of his adoring wife, and he must struggle against influences which would dishonor and endanger him and his family. - IMDb

This underground film shot in south Los Angeles in the early 1970s is not to be confused with a blaxploitation film. This is a poetic and deeply touching movie that went unseen for over two decades because of rights clearance issues with the music in the film. The picture of daily life in Watts that it shows is both stifling but also affirming and moving. When it was added to the National Film Registry in 1990, that helped raise awareness for the movie, and ultimately led to a limited theatrical release in 2007. It is now available on DVD.

7. I Bury the Living

Cemetery director Robert Kraft discovers that by arbitrarily changing the status of plots from empty to occupied on the planogram causes the death of the plots' owners. - IMDb

I came across this one on a Public Domain movies site years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised. What the description here doesn't include is that the director doesn't want to be killing people, and begins thinking that he's descending into madness. As this starts to happen, there are a couple of visual effects sequences that are really striking, and take on the air of a twisted re-imagining of Fitzgerald's "eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckelburg." The film suffers a little from a Scooby-Doo ending, but there are rumors that there was a different ending originally shot. That's going to have to be one for the angels, though, because in 1958 nobody was keeping alternate endings of B-pictures around for archivists to find later.

8. Billy the Kid vs. Dracula

Dracula travels to the American West, intent on making a beautiful ranch owner his next victim. Her fiance, outlaw Billy the Kid, finds out about it and rushes to save her. - IMDb

I reviewed this movie before, and you can read that at your leisure, but for our purposes here I will simply quote one line of that review: "At some point in 1965 or '66, some actual human being must have had this thought: 'Let's get John Carradine to play a vampire again, but this time we'll stick him in the Old West, name the movie after two characters not actually appearing in the movie, and shoot the thing for a nickel in, say, my back yard in Encino!'" The IMDb description is actually not correct: Carradine is never identified as Dracula because they didn't want Universal suing them, and "Billy" in the film did not have a previous career as a notorious outlaw. So if this sounds like it's up your alley, it probably is. If it doesn't, man, you've been warned.

9. Plan 9 from Outer Space

Aliens resurrect dead humans as zombies and vampires to stop humanity from creating the Solaranite (a sort of sun-driven bomb). - IMDb

This is also an objectively bad movie, but Edward D. Wood Jr. deserves a place on this list if for no other reason than that Ed Wood is maybe the greatest movie ever made about movies. Plan 9 is also, and I don't know anybody who would argue with me on this, the closest Ed Wood ever got to making a decent movie. The idea of a bomb made out of the sun's rays is not the worst sci-fi idea ever, and the story is more or less coherent. As opposed to, say, Glen, or Glenda?. Plus, the reach of this movie has been remarkable, from the Tim Burton biopic to the name of Glenn Danzig's record label, so it's worth watching if you haven't actually seen it. May I recommend watching Ed Wood and then Plan 9 as a double-feature?

10. Primer

Four friends/fledgling entrepreneurs, knowing that there's something bigger and more innovative than the different error-checking devices they've built, wrestle over their new invention. - IMDb

Of course, if you'd actually like to see a good sci-fi movie made for no money, you might want to skip ahead a few decades to Primer. This movie has a reputation for being quite a mind-bender of a time-travel movie, and it does not disappoint. I would argue that only with (many) multiple viewings and some graph paper could you actually untangle what's happening in all the different timelines, but at a certain point, it doesn't matter. The storytelling is dizzyingly complex, but you get the impression director Shane Carruth knows what's going on, and that he's going to take you somewhere worthwhile, so you go along. It's a tense and confusing ride, but I'm not aware of another movie like it. I actually prefer Carruth's poetic, disjointed follow-up Upstream Color, but start here.

11. It's Such a Beautiful Day

Bill struggles to put together his shattered psyche, in this new feature film version of Don Hertzfeldt's animated short film trilogy. - IMDb

As long as we're talking about bending minds, let's also dip our toes into the animation end of the pool. Don Hertzfeldt bends minds with the best of them, and I am truly at a loss as to how he is able to tell such elliptical stories with stick figures and still elicit powerful emotional responses from me. I am a big fan of Don Hertzfeldt, and this re-packaged collection of three of his related short films is a perfect example of why. Bill seems to be emotionally falling apart, but then it seems like he's actually mentally falling apart. His journey yo-yo'ing closer to and farther away from "sanity" and "reality" is both tremendously imaginative and tremendously moving. Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow short film was absolutely robbed of an Oscar, too, for whatever that's worth.

12. Sita Sings the Blues

An animated version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. - IMDb

Animator Nina Paley made this animated feature film on her own. By herself. Alone. Feature film. Bill Plympton does the same kind of thing, and I am simply in awe of these artists. Paley's movie tells the story of Sita and her lover Rama from the Hindu epic Ramayana, and intertwines that tale with the story of the dissolution of Paley's own marriage. It's simply a beautiful, enthralling piece of work that not only explodes with imagination, but is full of beautiful visual design, too. It blurs the line between myth, fiction, and documentary, and is set entirely to torch songs. What's not to love?

13. The Beaver Trilogy

It begins in 1979 with the chance meeting in a Salt Lake City parking lot where filmmaker Trent Harris is approached by an earnest small-town dreamer from Beaver, Utah. - IMDb

And speaking of blurring, this one's something. As quick as I can tell it: Trent Harris was working at a TV station in Utah when they got their first video camera, and he was testing it in the parking lot when a guy called "Groovin' Gary" spotted him and came over.Gary always wanted to be on TV, and had his car adorned with images of Olivia Newton-John. He invited Harris back to Beaver for a talent show that Gary wanted recorded. In it, Gary dressed in drag and performed *as* Olivia Newton-John, to the befuddlement and ridicule of the small, conservative town. That really happened. A couple of years later, Harris moved to LA, and fictionalized the story a bit, and shot it as a short film with a pre-Fast Times Sean Penn. A couple of years later, while at USC film school, he made another go at the same story with a pre-Back to the Future Crispin Glover. If you can't find this amazing, unique gem, track down the new documentary The Beaver Trilogy, Part IV, which tells the whole story in stunning fashion.

14. The Sid Saga

Spurred by house guests Bob Sandstrom and Karlene Sandstrom leafing through his scrap book and asking about photographs in it, Sid Laverents begins to tell his life story. - IMDb

This is simply one of the crown jewels of amateur cinema. I don't know how to find it, except UCLA shows it sometimes and it occasionally airs as part of the sporadic TCM Underground series. But it is truly unforgettable, with Sid Laverents taking viewers through a stunning, three-part filmic biography that not only tells the story of Laverents, but of 20th Century America, too. It begins in poverty and vaudeville, goes through World War II, the 1950s and Cold War, the aerospace boom and introduction of the space program, and finally the rise of amateur film and videography that put storytelling tools into the hands of everyday people. And it's all told first-hand from Laverents, who lived it all. I reviewed this film a couple of years ago, and it is absolutely worth tracking down.

15. Head

The Monkees are tossed about in a psychedelic, surrealist, plotless, circular bit of fun fluff. - IMDb

Whoever wrote this IMDb summary can suck it. This is anything but "fan fluff." This is the weirdest damn thing, and as far from the Monkees TV show as I can really imagine. It's a smart, self-indulgent, self-reflexive piece of meta-storytelling made by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, who would immediately after this project go on to collaborate on Five Easy Pieces, with Nicholson exploding into the mainstream world in Easy Rider in between. The Monkees got a bad rap at the time, and I think it persists, that they were just a slapped-together attempt by a record company to make an American version of the Beatles. That may have been their genesis, but their songs are great, the guys were interested in things beyond the show, which came through in songs like "Randy Souse Git" and this film, which was reportedly the first time Americans had seen the now-famous footage of  the South Vietnamese Chief of Police executing a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner. Fan fluff, right? This was Tor Johnson's final film, and also, in a restroom, Peter Tork gives Davy Jones the advice that, "Nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humor."

16. The X from Outer Space

The spaceship AAB-Gamma is dispatched from FAFC headquarters in Japan to make a landing on the planet Mars and investigate reports of UFOs in the area. - IMDb

In the 1960s, the Shochiku studio in Japan, which was known for more serious, art-house films like those of Yashujiro Ozu, decided it wanted to get in on some of that sweet Godzilla money that Toho was pulling down, and this film was their attempt. In it, some swinging astronauts jet back and forth between Earth, the moon, and Mars for reasons that are clear, but don't make any logical sense. While exploring, they get some goo on the ship, which hatches into a giant space chicken called Guilala. The English dub of this movie is legitimately terrible, but the original Japanese version, subtitled, is wonderful. It is everything I love about silly, 1960s monster movies, and may even exceed some of the Godzilla movies with shady aliens in them.

17. Suspiria

A newcomer to a fancy ballet academy gradually comes to realize that the school is a front for something far more sinister and supernatural amidst a series of grisly murders. - IMDb

This movie, by Italian horror icon Dario Argento (who also co-wrote the unmatched Once Upon a Time in the West), is the real deal. It's creepy, scary, grisly, bloody, mysterious, and atmospheric. It hits all of my favorite notes of horror movies, and has an ending that is serious nightmare fuel. Emerging from the giallo scene in Italy, it took things a step farther, and is really not for the faint of heart. But man, this is such a great horror movie. I've written before about the line that connects certain films between the 1950s and early 60s, ultimately resulting in Rosemary's Baby, and I think Rosemary in turn made Suspiria possible.

18. Bay of Blood

An elderly heiress is killed by her husband who wants control of her fortunes. What ensues is an all-out murder spree as relatives and friends attempt to reduce the inheritance playing field, complicated by some teenagers who decide to camp out in a dilapidated building on the estate. - IMDb

Staying in Italy with a giallo contemporary of Argento's, we have Mario Bava's Bay of Blood. Bava was making his mark a decade before Argento hit the scene, so a lot of what Argento would build on came from Bava. And it goes way beyond that. Because Bay of Blood is not a "proto-slasher" movie, it is a full-bore, perfect example of a slasher movie, made almost a decade before slasher movies were a thing. You could pretty much take the cliched rules laid out in Scream that govern slasher movies and apply them one-for-one to this movie, but if that's the case, that means this movie invented those rules. I don't know if American filmmakers in the early 1980s looked at this movie and drew inspiration, or if Bava was simply ahead of his time, but this movie is about as good as straight slashers get, and it accomplished that while creating the lexicon, so I think that's one hell of an achievement.

19. The Wicker Man

A police sergeant is sent to a Scottish island village in search of a missing girl whom the townsfolk claim never existed. Stranger still are the rites that take place there. - IMDb

When I was in college and found 1) the Internet and 2) a pair of amazing video stores near my dorm, I spent some time combing a bunch of lists to find movies to rent. The Wicker Man consistently showed up on lists of "the scariest movies ever made" and that sort. So I rented it and I thought it was stupid. But I just sort of missed it — there's something sticky about this movie. Even though I didn't think I liked it, something made me want to revisit it, and when I did, a switch flipped and I fell in love with this movie about the collision of modern life, Christianity, and very, very old pagan beliefs that have still never really gone away. It's a movie with a lot going on under the surface, and which was also plagued for decades with a "the movie that could've been" legend that told the tale of how we never got to see the director's real vision of the movie. That has since been solved, despite the original camera negatives being used as fill underneath the M1 motorway connecting London to Leeds. And for what it's worth, my copy of The Wicker Man DVD actually came in a wicker box.

20. Equinox

Four friends are attacked by a demon while on a picnic, due to possession of a tome of mystic information. Told in flashbacks by the sole survivor. - IMDb

To be honest, this movie is mostly remarkable because of the people that worked on it. As a film on its own, it's only ok, and the present-day framing device of a police detective interviewing a survivor of all that went down is...clumsy at best. So you've really got to have some patience to get to where the movie begins to cook. This film was created by friends who met through Forest J. Ackerman (Uncle Forry), who founded Famous Monsters of Filmland in Los Angeles, and decided to make their own film. These friends, including Jack Woods and Dennis Muren, went on to become transformational figures in Hollywood through their contribution to sound and visual effects. It's truly remarkable to see their first film, knowing that they went on to redefine the modern cinematic language. No hyperbole. There are entire passages of The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 that are cribbed directly from this film, and while the humans-talking-to-each-other portion of the movie is clunky, the finale, made from stop-motion, rotoscoping, and glass mattes, is legitimately badass.

21. Incubus

On a strange island inhabited by demons and spirits, a man battles the forces of evil. - IMDb

You notice how vague the plot summary for this movie is? That's about right. I mean, what I remember from this movie is William Shatner and some girl hiding in a barn, and then I think they ran for a bit...and maybe one of them was briefly possessed, but I couldn't swear to that. This movie is totally forgettable except for one kinda important thing: it was spoken entirely in Esperanto. You know what Esperanto is, right? It's an invented language that blends elements of the Romance languages, English, and probably a few other languages into what was hoped to be a universal language. Created in the 1880s, it took almost 100 years to make a movie in the language, and that was Incubus. So if you want to watch a movie where Bill Shatner speaks a made-up language, this is your only option, folks. Who gives a shit if it is entirely, and utterly, forgettable otherwise? But look: I have friends who have learned Swedish to watch Bergman movies in the native language, and friends who have learned Japanese to watch anime in its native language (I have undeniably awesome friends), so if you want to be able to turn the subtitles off in Incubus, you can currently learn Esperanto in the free language-learning app Duolingo on your phone.

22. Venus in Furs

A musician finds the corpse of a beautiful woman on the beach. The woman returns from the dead to take revenge on the group of wealthy sadists responsible for her death. - IMDb

This is definitely an outsider kind of film. I haven't seen any other of Jesus "Jess" Franco's films, but from what I know, a number of his films have veered into the more hardcore elements of mixing sex and cinema. Venus in Furs certainly has sex and nudity, but what it has more of, and in spades, is atmosphere and intrigue. The story is told through the eyes of Jimmy, a jazz musician, who sees a beautiful girl at a swanky party, then finds her merdered body on the beach, then sees her again, walking around. There's a wonderful current of I Spit on Your Grave-style cosmic retribution for sexual violence that runs through the movie, but mainly it's just sort of out-there and entrancing. Like the jazz musician at the center of the movie, you're never quite sure what's going on, and you're kind of ok with that because it's a unique ride you want to get to the end of.

23. The Masque of the Red Death

A European prince terrorizes the local peasantry while using his castle as a refuge against the "Red Death" plague that stalks the land. - IMDb

To be honest, I didn't realize this was my favorite of the Roger Corman/Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe movies until I wrote songs about a bunch of horror movies, and the one I wrote for this one turned out to be my favorite. Like in Bucket of Blood above where Roger Corman is a good director, and in Blacula where performances can elevate an otherwise straight exploitation film, for me Hazel Court makes this movie. There are a number of wonderful things in this one, from the dwarf circus performer who murders a friend of Prince Prospero (Vincent Price) to avenge an insult to a girl he loves, to the amazing set design that was the apotheosis of the Corman/Price/Poe look, that if I have to let this one movie stand in for all the wonderful films in this series of movies, I'm happy to do so. If you can only watch one Roger Corman movie this Halloween season, I recommend this one.

24. Perversion for Profit

This anti-porn short film shows a flood tide of filth engulfing the country in the form of newsstand obscenity. - IMDb

This is maybe a bit of a cheat. This isn't a narrative film or documentary, but I guess you could say it's a sort of outsider cinema. This instructional film was created in 1965 to warn America of the dangers of the secret filth hiding in the newsstands in the form of comics, men's, and women's magazines. This film is amazing in many ways. There's the slice-of-life sense of giving the modern-day viewer a picture of what life was like in the mid-1960s, and what people could see walking into the corner drug for a magazine, but mainly it's a totally un-self aware look at the hypocrisy of the morality police. The fact is that this movie is a half-hour of words talking about how terrible the "smut" problem is in America, while showing the "smut" in question in full detail. There are very tiny black bars over nipples or eyes, but it's clear to see that this film became, in a sense, exactly what it beheld. By damning pictures of nude women while showing pictures of nude women, today this seems like a way to get soft-core porn into the hands of moral crusaders who could only enjoy nude bodies if they felt they were also condemning them. This movie is a really interesting artifact that says a lot more about the people who made and watched it than it does about they people they were trying to denigrate. It's a fascinating time-capsule that conveys a very different message these days than it was originally meant to.

Posted by Vance K — Emmy-winning producer, folk musician, and cult film reviewer and co-editor of nerds of a feather, flock together since 2012.

Monday, October 17, 2016

6 Books with Julie Czerneda

Photo Credit: Roger Czerneda Photography

Julie Czerneda is the best selling and award winning author of 17 science fiction and fantasy novels including the Species Imperative trilogy, the Clan Chronicles, and the Night's Edge fantasy series.

Today she shares her 6 books with us...

1. What book are you currently reading?
The Forgotten Tale by J.M. Frey, REUTS Publications. I was given an advance copy because I love this author’s work and I LOVED the previous book in the series, An Untold Tale. Fantastic stuff, especially if you enjoy serious smarts in your story-telling. Plus dragonet.

2. What upcoming book you are really excited about?
The next one Ben Aaronovitch writes in his Rivers of London series. Our travelling offspring lent me the existing books and I gobbled them up, despite trying to ration myself. They are fun, original, and yes, feel a bit Pratchett (wistful sigh) in the best way. Can’t wait to dive back in!

3. Is there a book you're currently itching to re-read?
PRIDE OF CHANUR by C.J. Cherryh. I included an excerpt in the 2017 NEBULA AWARDS SHOWCASE (I’ve Editor Power, you see) in honour of her being named a Grand Master this year. An all-time favourite of mine from the start. That taste has reminded me it’s been too long since I revisited Pyanfar and Co.

4. How about a book you've changed your mind about over time--either positively or negatively?
That’s a toughie. We’re still mid-move, so the majority of my books are in boxes. I’ll go with A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ve loved the series, and still do, but recently I looked into the astronomy that was current at the time the books were written. I discovered Burroughs, as do we all, wrote with that understanding. The best science he had available. So now they’ve taken on a tighter SF feel to me than before. Very happy about that.

5. What's one book, which you read as a child or young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?
There’s one that had a tremendous impact on me as a reader first, then as a writer. I discovered science fiction by reading every book by an author whose name started with “N” in my school library. It was the easiest shelf to reach and I was bored. When I found Andre Norton’s THE STAR RANGERS, I realized I was home. This was the literature I’d been looking for, without knowing it. My parents took note and from then on, my Poppa would buy me a couple of books each payday. DOC SAVAGE. TARZAN. Narnia. Everything he could find. I haven’t looked back. Except to reread those earliest loves regularly.

6. And speaking of that, what's *your* latest book, and why is it awesome?
Me? My latest book is THE GATE TO FUTURES PAST, Reunification #2, just released by DAW. I wouldn’t say awesome, unless you go with the original, rather terrifying meaning of the word. GATE is dire. Reunification brings my Clan Chronicles series to a close, so GATE is where all the dark things happen and there’s no escape in sight. People have told me it’s magnificent while they sob, which is high praise, if unnerving. I’m writing the ending, TO GUARD AGAINST THE DARK now, so I can promise there’s…

…okay, going on record here. There’s better to come. I promise. This is me and I like my endings big and satisfying on every level. They have to feel right. That said? This one, to the series, won’t be what readers expect. GUARD will be out October 2017.

POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Writer / Editor at Adventures in Reading since 2004, Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2015, editor since 2016. Minnesotan.   

Friday, October 14, 2016

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 09/2016

Happy Beerthday! With this installment The Monthly Round is officially two years old! That both doesn't seem like that much and seems like a hell of a lot. That means that I've looked at 216 pieces of short SFF and paired them with booze and reviews. That's…well, that's something, I guess. Anyway, thanks to all of those who've enjoyed the Round!

September is a strange time where I live. A mix of autumn and summer. And when I say a mix I mean that one day will be over eighty degrees (F) and the next day will get downright cold. Storms abound as farmers scramble to try and string enough dry days together to harvest. In town the river threatened to overrun its banks with all the rain we got. And always in the back of everything there is the whispering figure of winter smiling from the distance. Won't be long now, its smile says. Best get ready.

So maybe it's no surprise that the fiction I've selected for this month's Round are a bit on the dark side. About death and injustice, resistance and revolution. About ghosts and about corruption. Maybe it's no surprise that this time of year sees me reaching for the darker beers and the lighter wines. The contrast speaks to me, and is reflected in my picks this month. Because there might be a crispness in the air that promises the cold isn't far off, but that doesn't mean a strong drink and an excellent SFF story can't help me forget, at least for a little while, and focus on what's here and now.

So kick back and don't worry about the dirt on your boots. Or the blood. Instead, let your trusty storytender pour you something to take the edge off. Cheers!

Tasting Flight: September 2016

Art by Reiko Murakami
"Unauthorized Access" by An Owomoyela (Lightspeed #76)
Threading together activism and corruption, whistle-blowing and hacking, An Owomoyela's "Unauthorized Access" tastes like a Red IPA to me, fun and brash and up front and with the feel of something smoldering, ready to fully ignite. The story follows Aedo Lang, recently released from a stint in jail for presumably hacking but really for being poor and for pissing off the government. Now free, Aedo wonders exactly what to do next, how to get involved again but perhaps not in a way that will lead to prison. Except that she stumbles right into the thick of things when a government employee approaches her with suspicions of corruption that reach much deeper than what Aedo had uncovered before. The story is equal parts ethics and espionage with a little education thrown in about hacking and how people are supposed to be protected for whistle-blowing and often are not. And I love Aedo as a character, practical in her desire for food, protection, and an income, and yet also idealistic, believing that justice should be applied to all, even when it seems so often to favor those with means. It's a story that opens up a complex and interesting future where renewable resources aren't the only green energy the government uses. Money pushes the story along. The lack of it for some and the super-abundance of it for others. It creates a landscape where Aedo is never truly safe trying to walk the line between revolutionary and upstanding citizen. And like a Red IPA the story shows that revolution can have a bit of sweetness to go with the bitter truth, but that in order to get to a just system sometimes the old one has to burn. 

Art by Julie Dillon
"Toward the Luminous Towers" by Bogi Takács (Clarkesworld #120)
"Toward the Luminous Towers" by Bogi Takács is a story about conflict and war, soldiers and soldiering and damage of many different kinds, and to me it comes across slow and deep, surprisingly dark and dense but with a glow to it of hope and action. Which feels like an Amber Bock, a drink that pours a deep brown and tastes like forgotten war songs. The story reveals a neuroatypical soldier who is valuable for the very reasons that in civilian life they were marginalized. Who can network into computer systems and organize troops, coordinate attacks and defense. They are paired with a handler in a war that is slowly being lost, a war that is slowly devouring everything in its path. And the trajectory of the main character is that of a weapon being used by their government, no different than a bomb being dropped on an enemy encampment. They are used. They are pushed into something dark and draining towards an inky bottom of total dissolution. And like a bomb or a gun dropped in surrender, there is no care for the character after the conflict subsides. They are used and in many ways deliberately broken, and despite the fact that they could be fixed, that they could at least be brought closer to whole, instead they are forgotten and shelved. It is a wrenching and difficult read, heartbreaking in its tragedy. And yet even so there is a warmth to it, a movement toward something that isn't war, that is beyond war and violence. That can't be reached by war and violence, which is the problem that the main character realizes too late. And yet even so there is a hope that will not die, a strength that is never crushed despite how much the main character suffers. Like an Amber Bock there is the feeling of something rising out of the darkness, a will and a power that the darkness cannot erase. 

"Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera (Strange Horizons)
Despite it being solidly autumn, "Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera feels like a Winter Ale to me, a story of layers and masks that mirror the spiced and hopped subtlety that makes winter ales memorable. The story unfolds as a conversation of sorts, archived at this point with references interspersed through the text to create a more interactive experience. Which is fitting, as the voice of the story is a questionably-sentient computer program that exists to be interacted with, to be questioned. It's a mix of a game and a history lesson and art and more, this person captured but not really. There is a distilling of the person that was but guided by an author, by intent, curated and manicured and crafted to exist as art and person both. The effect is interesting, a story that blends art theory with a history of revolution with the technology that allows people to create "smart" masks. I love how the character of the narrator, of Satka, emerges in an absence, emerges in the face of Satka-the-art, Satka-the-program, and yet through both the viewer (and the reader) have a chance to touch an aspect of the person who was Satka, and the new entity that is also Satka. There is commentary on continuity and interface and the role of the audience to observe. And I feel that the story led me to thinking about art and about stories, about the urge to write about history as a way to preserve it. Not the events, not the facts of what happened, but to crystallize a feeling that can be passed down, that can be remembered. And by creating a mask the story seems to acknowledge the construction, the illusion that art gives, while also saying that it might not matter. That the representation is important, and that art can be uplifting and transformational even if it's fiction, even if it can't actually reproduce a human mind. Like a Winter Ale I feel the story slows things down, layers spices and flavors to create a mosaic of experience that is beautiful and meaningful. 

Art by Jenna Whyte
"The Life and Times of Angel Evans" by Meredith Debonnaire (The Book Smugglers)
I have a thing with white wines where sometimes they taste a little…hollow. Light. Except that sometimes I find a white that is anything but, that is bold and dry and bracing. And so, for me, Meredith Debonnaire's "The Life and Times of Angel Evans" is a good Chardonnay, one that defies expectations by challenging the conventions of the superhero story, of the Chosen One trope. Because in the story Angel is a survivor. Of a disaster, yes, but more of fate. Because it was fate that cast her in the role of Chosen One, of savior of every world. Except the world she grew up in. The choice that she had to make was something that broke her spirit, that set her fleeing from the gratitude of a universe that suddenly was in her debt. And I love the way the story teases out the pain and the quest for healing. How the story shows Angel trying to move on, unsure if she can, knowing that for her the story always ends at the choice and the choice has been made. She's been vomited back out by fate and has no endgame now, no rapidly-approaching crisis. What she has left is the weight of the world that she lost, that she chose to lose, and the magic and power that seems almost pointless without a destiny to match it. The world-building of the story is rich and vibrant and the character work is amazing. Angel and her ghost-girlfriend make for an incredible couple and I love the how much is put into conveying the feeling of loss and isolation that Angel feels. The pressure and also the freedom. The power and the responsibility. It's a fun story but also a difficult one, one where the reader can be almost seduced by the way that Angel buries the pain, pushes through it in various forms of self-destruction. And yet the story doesn't give up on her, and there is a sense of slow recovery, of getting to a place where she can be comfortable with what's happened and begin to move on, to heal. It's a gripping story and, like a Chardonnay, comes in a big container (nearly a novella) that begs to be passed around among friends, dry and full and crisp and full of life in all its complexities. 

Art by Richie Pope
"The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin (Tor dot com)
With a taste of the streets of New York and a breath of new life and lurking dangers, "The City Born Great" by N.K. Jemisin feels like a Double Black IPA to me, rebellious and unwilling to compromise on what's important, and strong enough to beat the shit out of anyone or anything looking to start trouble. The main character is black, queer, and homeless, living in a New York that's always on the verge of killing him. And yet for perhaps that very reason he becomes the avatar of New York, the midwife for a city that's just being born. Or that hopes to be born, because without protection and guidance the city might easily slip into catastrophe, might be devoured and lost in disaster. And it's up to the main character to stop that from happening. The world that is set is basically our own, only it's populated by cities that are stealthily sentient, and beings even more vast and ancient looking for any opportunity to feed. And it's a story, to me, about visibility. About this main character who can embody an entire city not because he is the loudest and most obvious champion, but because he is unseen, as the city is unseen. I mean, people see the buildings and the parks, the streets and the rivers, but the living part of the city is concealed, ignored. Invisible. Like the main character, the city is vulnerable and there are those who would exploit that, who would victimize it because it's unseen. And yet the main character and the city show their strength, the strength that has had to grow in adversity, that has had to develop on its own, solitary and hard. It's a story about breaking out, about finding a power within and using it to do some righteous damage to those predatory forces hoping to get away with murder. It's an affirming and lifting story with a serious kick, and like a Double Black IPA is bitter but triumphant, dark but beautifully so. 

Art by Vincent Chong
"Some Breakable Things" by Cassandra Khaw (The Dark #16)
 Cassandra Khaw captures a slow kind of horror and pain in "Some Breakable Things," a story of family and death and damage that tastes to me like a Vanilla Porter, smoky and deep with a lingering darkness that subverts the sweet vanilla overtures. The main character is being haunted by their father. Their father who abused them, physically and emotionally. Who forced his child to justify his existence, to be a reason not to die, not to commit suicide. The story is in some ways about how damage can be passed along, how it doesn't end when an abuser dies. Something remains, some ghost of them that lives in the mind of the victim. A ghost that can't seem to be exorcised, at least not always, and especially not without help. A ghost that becomes more and more demanding, more and more disruptive. I love t he way the story ecokes this desperation to escape, the main character trapped between familial responsibility and their own need to be away from it, to have moved away from it. It's a beautiful picture of grief and guilt. Of hurt. It is horrifying and heartbreaking in how the ghost is able to move with impunity, how the main character is powerless in the face of it, how there is such love mixed with such pain. The story plays with the boundaries of ghost and living person, the ghost of the father more real the more wraith-like the main character becomes, the more isolated and tormented. It's a powerful story that and like a Vanilla Porter takes a relationship and love that is supposed to be sweet and twists it, drowns the hope of relief under a tide of darkness.


Art by Dario Bijelac
"Muse" by Nicola Belte (Flash Fiction Online)
 Examining the idea and disease of consumption, this story feels like a Ghost Girl to me, a layering of equal parts dark rum, Irish cream, and grenadine, the sweetness hiding something dark underneath. It paints a picture, rather literally, of children gripped with disease. Being slowly killed on purpose to emphasize their frailty, to reveal the beauty that only arises from the proximity to death. It is a deeply uncomfortable read, one that shows ghosts lingering at the place of their death, unable to flee even then in the face of what has happened to them. It shows a system that values class and wealth and power and men. That sees these girls as objects only and ones that can be given a disease expressly to make them seem more beautiful. So they can be painted. So they can become objects in truth, their flesh and blood discarded, their ghosts chained to this grim reminder of their exploitation. It's chilling and visceral, the children stripped of their voices, erased, the history of art the history of consumption, the history of women consumed by powerful men who never even thought of them as human. It's tragic and it's disturbing, but I feel it's also important to see, to watch the mechanisms by which lives are consumed. Like a Ghost Girl, it seems pretty and sweet, and yet under that there is the red of blood and a strong and stirring darkness. 

"The Exemption Packet" by Rose Eveleth (Terraform)
This story, framed as a packet of information explaining why one person doesn't have neural augmentations, tastes like a Head Rush, a mix of one part rum, two parts sour apple vodka, and a splash of lemon juice, an experience that is nearly overwhelming and quite memorable. The story reveals a world where mental augmentation is the norm in education, allowing students to go beyond their baseline senses so that they can see different spectra of color, can interact with computers, can have access to so much additional information. The main character is applying for a job and the company she applies to wants to check out why she isn't augmented. They get her file, which builds her situation and the world, the pressures to conform and adopt this technology and the way that it assumes that everyone will react the same way to it. And yet the piece also shows how there is no such thing as a universal educational system. What works for some can't work for others and this is especially true with a person is neuroatypical and doesn't experience the world the way other people do. The character has to defend this constantly, is used to the judgments that people have of her. And yet she spells it out in clear, moving language why she doesn't want augmentation. Why she would risk the scorn and the institutional bias. I love the way that it confronts the reader with the limits of technology, not only within a science fictional future but right now, how it shows that we need to rethink education to get away from standardization and toward something that can actually benefit everyone. And like a Head Rush, the story shows how the world can be an overload of information at times, and there's a lot to be learned in slowing down and trying to draw out each unique flavor. 

Art by Mélanie Delon
"The Old Man and the Phoenix" by Alexandria Baisden (Apex #88)
A touching story exploring friendship and mortality, pain and celebration, this one seems like a Phoenix to me, a mix of equal parts Rumchata and cinnamon whiskey, creating a burst of fire and flavor, a joyous song of life. The story takes place as an old man is dying, a magician who has lived a life of adventure, who has built a lifelong friendship with a phoenix, who has died many times but, of course, always comes back. There is no such comfort in this death, though, no coming back, and the story explores how that makes it different, how this friendship has meant so much to both man and phoenix. There's a touch of melancholy running throughout the piece, that this is an ending and also a beginning, but an ending all the same. That for the man it might mean rejoining other loves who have gone on ahead but that there will be no reconnecting with the phoenix, that there will always be the wall of mortality between them, always the question of what comes next that the phoenix cannot know because it never is allowed to go far enough. The story is quiet and moving, the characters tired after long lives and in some ways ready and in other ways not ready at all. Like life in general, this new chapter is one they can't map out, that they can't see, and they won't have each other to lean on. It's a beautiful piece, a beautiful friendship, and like a Phoenix somewhat bittersweet, a fire of remembrance and grief and hope.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.