Angst & Instability

I don’t know anyone who does not suffer from some form of Anxiety. I have written about this variously elsewhere on this site but the more research I do on psychology and philosophy (for work I might add, that is literally my job) the more it seems an inevitability of modern living. I was recently reading Kierkegaard’s ‘Sickness Unto Death’ which he calls Despair, which he defines in the almost comedic way of: “relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. Soren was talking about the search for God and the idea of sin or simply a life without God being the eponymous ‘Sickness’, however there is a lot in the text that neatly describes the sort of depression that is on the rise today. For such a short but dense philosophical text, chiefly about God, it is worth the read purely because of its demand for self-exploration and understanding. In it Kierkegaard talks about the idea of ‘embracing oneself’ which is very much a buzzword amongst the positivity movement that is so prevalent today but more than that it grapples with the notion of the infinite and the finite and reconciling our place within both. As such ‘Sickness Unto Death’ can be seen as one of the earliest existential texts.

Even more interestingly Kierkegaard also wrote a text called ‘The Concept of Anxiety’ in 1844. In it he uses the analogy of a man at a cliff edge looking over the edge and being terrified by the drop yet with a compulsion to jump off. This internal conflict is what he defines as Anxiety or Angst: living in indecision. What this signifies is the dread that accompanies an awareness of our own freedom. The immensity of our abilities and our freedom in such a vast, and largely uncaring, universe is powerful and daunting, Kierkegaard recognizes this and gave us the definition for what teenagers around the world are accused of feeling every day. And he was right. What greater kind of indecision and accompanying dread is there in life than the transformation from a near total lack of awareness in childhood to almost too much awareness and understanding in adulthood? Every teenager is afflicted with angst because they have not yet learned to compartmentalize in the way adults do and bury ourselves in the minutiae of everyday life to ignore the immensity of experience and existence. Naturally, as a Christian, Kierkegaard says this is to do with sin and not accepting God but again need not be read that way. The idea of reconciling the finite and the infinite is a struggle which we all deal with. Or at least I thought it was.

HP Lovecraft is a horror writer from the early 20th century who built on this existential dread of reconciling our place in the Universe that was explored in a similar way in fiction by Ambrose Bierce and Robert Chambers but is definitely born of Kierkegaard’s explorations into Despair & Angst. I’m a fan of this type of horror writing and apparently I’m not alone, many things in popular culture at the moment are turning to this kind of existential horror in in either direct or oblique but always interesting ways. I wrote about this resurgence on this site previously too. Despite this it would seem this type of horror is purely the bastion of the straight white male. The thing that prompted me to write this piece was on Twitter recently, someone RTed a quote by William Hutson of the hip-hop group Clipping who said that “Lovecraft’s cosmic pessimism is only terrifying if you’re a straight white man and you thought you were the centre of the universe anyway.” Now an important thing to know about Lovecraft was that he was a racist and anti-semite and these factors undeniably informed his writing. Writing at a time of post war civil rights meant a straight white dude was being confronted by his own existence, specifically (he thought) having his freedoms removed. Now whilst this is certainly true it does little to explain why Ice T recently talked about his love for the Lovecraft story ReAnimator on Twitter or the incredibly horrifying existential confrontation of Get Out that was such an enormous success. And, most tellingly, the cultural penetration of Game of Thrones which is purely about the existential threat of the amorphous Winter, the night that is “dark and full of terrors” and so on, and the futility of our fighting it (a topic explored by Wisecrack). Lovecraft’s brand of existential terror is indeed informed by his problematic beliefs but the genre itself only seems to become more and more potent as the years go by.

Despite the despicable racism, anti-semitism, nationalism and class disparity that continues today, life in the west has improved vastly since the late 19th century. Equality took massive strides forward over the last 50 years and we live in a world of technological wonders like the internet that has increased the living conditions of billions and the rise of automation in industry has given us more free time to do what we love. And yet here we are with all this luxury, realizing how it equally penalizes other nations and cultures, how automation robs people of jobs and their identity, with rising political beliefs of a return to old fashioned segregation and discrimination, sexism and a potent form of nationalism all on the rise not the decline. In short, the whole planet has been confronted with its own freedom and the truly awesome immensity therein and far from embracing this and attempting to make a far more equitable and sympathetic society utilizing all this incredible new tools at our disposal, millions have shied from it. Instead they prefer to close their borders, demand a return to the ‘good old days’, where freedoms were limited, people were told what to do and personal liberties were maintained violently. By extension this can be seen in individuals as much as it can different societies or nations or people.

Friends and family of mine live their lives very differently now to the way I saw it as a kid. With the gig economy and most relationships (of any kind) being cultivated online and therefore needing nothing more than our smart device to run most aspects of daily life, we are given an enormous amount of freedom. With a wealth of things to do, to live and to experience in our time we instead live our lives in increasingly smaller homes and binge-watching season after season of television shows. The response to this is often “well I can’t afford to do anything” which in itself is another existential argument but what we’re essentially saying is we want to forgo our choice i.e. we are living in indecision. Some people are dedicated to moving forward and doing things and smugly tell us about it online in a passive aggressive way that says ‘you should be doing the same, you lazy bum’, others are dedicated to regressing society and become President, whereas I think most of us are the ones stuck in that stasis of indecision, not knowing how to move forward or back and consequently not putting the effort into defining ourselves beyond the roles a steadily dissolving society has given us. We are freer than we have ever been as species (that does not mean there are not people who have little to no freedoms and are not subjugated) and yet far from accepting and utilizing this freedom the vast majority of us either shun it entirely or refuse to do anything with it and that, I believe, is where this epidemic of anxiety has grown from.

Far from being the exclusive malady of the white middle class, I think this existential anxiety is rife amongst humanity today, whatever your belief, creed, colour or nation. The need for creating purpose in our lives and a direction for humanity as whole has never been more necessary but equally never more ignored and therefore, Kierkegaard’s need to reconcile ourselves with the immensity of existence, with God or without, seems to be the ultimate test of our times. If we cannot learn to justify our own existence and our place in the universe we may be heading for a lack of it.

Spectre at the Feast

Ambrose Bierce wrote a short story printed on Christmas Day in 1886 called ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. It’s a creepy story told in first person mainly about death and the afterlife. In 1895 Robert Chambers published a collection of short horror stories under the title ‘The King in Yellow’. The name is taken from a fictional play that drives anyone who reads it mad that is mentioned in most of the stories and serves as a connecting tissue for the whole collection. Quotes from the play introduce certain stories, one of them containing the line “But stranger still is Lost Carcosa”. Carcosa is mentioned in many of the stories too. Chambers made no secret of his homage to Bierce  and the stories from ‘The King in Yellow’ themselves share a similar dark atmosphere to ‘An Inhabitant of Carcosa’. Some years later in 1926 a writer called HP Lovecraft began having stories published, now dubbed the Cthulu Mythos, concerning themselves with a genre he termed ‘cosmological horror’, the notion that the vast universe contained horrors we could not comprehend and how insignificant we were in the face of them. Lovecraft equally payed homage to Bierce and Chambers using similar techniques as theirs in his shorts: first person and unreliable narrators, dark and pervasive atmosphere, a book – the infamous Necronomicon – that reappears in many stories and many other themes, styles and settings that they used. Many writers have added to the intertextual horror of the Cthulu Mythos over the years but it seems there has been a rather pointed resurgence in popular culture in the last two years.

My interest was first piqued when I was watching the first series of True Detective, which remains an absolute favourite, and the murderer and his accomplices talk explicitly about Lost Carcosa, the Yellow King, and talk at length about theoretical physics and humanity’s entirely redundant place in the universe and at a key moment a character demands Rust “take off your mask” which is a direct quote from the King in Yellow. This is more of a subtext in the inferior second series but still there in many ways. This added a deep and dark extra layer to something that was already pretty grim. Then there was a computer game released for the latest console generation entitled Bloodborne. Bloodborne is, in its entirety, a fond doffing of the hat to Lovecraft with its sanity meter, Shoggoth-type monsters, dream-like horrors and continual references to the Great Old ones and cities beyond the stars (how Carcosa is often described), all set in the Gothic Victoriana of a fictional city populated by werewolves and madmen. These are two very popular, very well-known pieces of cultural ephemera making explicit references to little known horror stories over a century old.

This weekend I went to see a play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester called ‘Pomona’. It is named after the bizarre and empty island between the canals in the centre of Manchester. It’s poster features someone wearing a Cthulu mask. The play itself is set in a maybe-future-maybe-now Manchester where girls are disappearing and the lives that are thrown together because of this. It shares a lot in common with True Detective in its themes but more so in its references to cosmological horror. Characters in the play are playing a role playing game based on Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu and this may or may not be reflected in their real lives. The same paranoia, insignificance and helplessness infused within Bierce, Chambers and Lovecraft runs through the play like a stick of rock. Independently I could perhaps see that I was simply following my nose to seeking out these things being a fan of this type of high concept horror but it was then that the most subtle but definitely most striking entry into this canon showed itself without me having any idea it would be there.

I took a day trip to London to see Spectre as Skyfall had not only set itself as my favourite Bond but hands-down one of my favourite films and I had high hopes. Largely it delivered, it wasn’t as good as Skyfall (it was never going to be) and was rather long and flabby but was a hearken back to the late Connery/early Moore Bond films and was enjoyably fun and a bit daft. What truly amazed me, however, was its own references to the same intertextual lineage of cosmological horror present in Bierce, Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloodborne, True Detective and Pomona. I’m sure at this point I am being scoffed at but let me explain… and if you haven’t seen Spectre please do so but don’t proceed beyond this point as there will be spoilers.

Spectre-Poster-1

First and foremost Spectre opens in the festival of the dead in Mexico City,  a hardly subtle planting of the flag in the same arena of the uncanny as the other entries but still a similarity. The concept of a shadowy organisation and corruption and paranoia and insignificance in the face of such a force are overriding themes in the others too and certainly in Spectre. The organisation itself is depicted as all pervasive and Bond having no idea what he is in for, “a kite dancing in the wind” but these are more general themes and ideas that I could easily just be bringing to the analysis without their overt presence within the film. As such let’s look at some specifics:

The most obvious is the meteorite. Blofeld (parenthetical aside: why the FUCK did they not just say who Christoph Waltz’s character was before hand? We all knew. The film’s called Spectre for fucks sake. Shit I hate marketing) brings Craig and Seydoux to look at the asteroid that created the crater where his base is, giving a little speech about the insignificance of man against the cosmos. Not only that but the asteroid is shaped with circular divots and drop lit creating the impression that the stone is covered in eyes. In short: it’s an inert Shoggoth from Lovecraft. Lovecraft also wrote a short called ‘The Rats in The Walls’ about a man driven mad by the scratching of rats in the walls of his house where he and his colleagues then explore discovering lost horrors in the foundations of the building. In Spectre Bond comically/drunkenly asks a rat who he works for only then for the rodent to disappear into the walls revealing a secret room beyond. Also worth mentioning a similar rat story is told (badly) by Vince Vaughan in True Detective 2. I did not catch the image but on the cork board above the picture Seydoux snatches in the secret room is a Victorian illustration that looked rather gothic horror. I’d be willing to bet on a freeze frame that is some thinly veiled reference to ineffable monstrosities from beyond the stars. Oh and then there’s the mysterious Mr. White from Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace  (intertextual again) referred to as ‘The Pale King’. The safehouse towards the end is called ‘Hildebrand Prints and Rarities’ a reference to Bond’s own mythos and a Fleming Short called ‘The Hildebrand Rarity’ about a rare fish that Bond goes fishing for (side note, Cthulu and associated monsters are beasts of the deep), the safehouse bears a striking resemblance to the description of the residence of Mr. Wilde in ‘Repairer of Reputations’ by Robert Chambers. Mr Wilde also has a cat, a scar and is well versed in everyone’s business using it for his own Machiavellian ends. Sounding familiar? There was also a wonderful moment where a crowd of drones tapping at keys suddenly halts and turns to face Bond in silhouette. A brilliantly chilling moment that isn’t a reference per se but definitely feels straight out of a Chambers/Lovecraft story.

The most blatant reference to Lovecraft/Bierce/Chambers however is in Spectre’s imagery and symbolism. In True Detective 1 the imagery of a vortex is seen throughout the series, either in the scrawls by the occultists or in the swirling flock of crows until it culminates with the swirling black hole of space Rust finally sees at the end of their case. In True Detective 2 two rorschach-like blotches seen above Vince Vaughan’s bed and on the tablecloth eerily reflect the empty sockets of his murdered colleague’s eyes. In Spectre the repeated imagery is the octopus logo of the organisation itself. Seen repeatedly throughout the film on the ring, it crops up in the corners of frame at regular instances but most subtly when Bond shoots the bulletproof glass which cracks in the same way as the film poster into the shape of the octopus. The octopus itself is shown in gargantuan size in the opening credit sequence, wrapping itself around naked and scantily clad women and none-too-subtly resembling every image of Cthulu available. If you think I am reading too much into this imagery Mendes put plenty in Skyfall, most notably the film’s use of Maritime paintings to convey Bond’s struggle for relevance in today’s world. For real, check it out. This kind of foreshadowing is used a lot in film, sometimes called a callback, and certainly if it is unstated this kind of visual storytelling is profoundly effective in conveying tone but also a deeper sense of a plot or subtext. Humans use symbolism to work through problems. Confronting our own failings is painful and difficult and not always rewarding which is why we tell stories with universal themes and identifiable characters and settings so we can project these feelings and thoughts onto the fiction and process our problems better. It is this cathartic process that can be refined and almost subconsciously adapted to tell a story or convey a point. Horror utilises this particularly well.

My favourite horror film is Don’t Look Now. It is not, on the whole, a scary film but it IS deeply, deeply unsettling throughout and it is the finale that is most terrifying. Roeg uses symbolism and imagery throughout the film to tell the story and to give the shocking ending such weight and horrifying depth. He uses three small things: broken glass, spilled water and the colour red. One of these will be in every scene in that film, maybe even every shot and it has a cumulative effect. From the opening shattering scene involving the broken glass spilling water onto the slide of a red hooded girl that mirrors their daughter’s awful drowning outside to THAT ending that will never leave me, the three pieces of symbolism and imagery connect the whole story start to finish and make it all the more haunting. It’s wonderful stuff. Spectre isn’t quite so involved but the use of its own symbolism that it undeniably cribs (maybe not intentionally) from those early horror writers lends the darker moments much more depth and weight.

So why now? Why is modern culture suddenly so keen on the cosmological horror of writers and stories from over a century ago? The pre-civil rights/post-war world Lovecraft wrote in, paranoia and the feeling of insignificance in the face of larger threats was ever present in society at the time. Lovecraft was also an indefensible racist and anti-semite, something that sadly pervades his work but goes a long way to explain where this resurgence of his and Chambers & Bierce’s brand of intertextual existential and worried horror in mainstream popular culture maybe coming from. We live in a world where (as Spectre also points out) the Snooper’s Charter is in headline news, we’re being watched by drones, innocent black people are being gunned down, school shootings are a near weekly occurrence, each new discovery from a comet to new pictures of Pluto places us in a inconceivably vast universe, wars abroad causing influxes of refugees to all shores across the globe and economic depression are almost all events shared with the time Lovecraft was writing.

‘The spectre at the feast’ is a turn of phrase in reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth (oh look at that, another recent film) where Macbeth’s feast is ruined by him seeing the ghost of Banquo, indicating he cannot hide from his guilt as it is his burden. Some people sometimes call this ‘the elephant in the room’. We live in scary and uncertain times that we are struggling to find our place in and it should be deeply troubling to all of us that such massive global blockbuster fare as James Bond would be, intentionally or not, using iconography of a hundred years ago to reveal the horrors being wrought on the planet. This current crop of creative writers, directors, playwrites and game developers who are returning to these stories as they strike such a deep chord, are addressing our own Spectre at our own feast and I worry that this “fit is not momentary” and we should heed better this “very painting of our fears”.

6xjOR

Wolves at the Door

werewolf

For as long as I can remember the idea of Werewolves has fascinated me. Wolves in general have always fascinated me but the idea of a half-man half-wolf creature has always been somewhat intriguing to me. I had the odd nightmare about them as a child and saw lots of exciting and interesting films about them when I was much too young, so they were fairly ingrained by the time I was a teenager. The real revelation came when I was about 15 and saw American Werewolf in London for the first time and was simultaneously scared to death, helpless with laughter and really excited. Werewolves have always given me something of a confused response; they certainly scare me, good old fashioned wolves do too, but they also really interest me, make me curious and fascinate me. Its only been in recent years I’ve understood this seems to be the case with most people, of both sexes importantly, and is the key to their long lasting appeal.

Horror stories depend on an inbuilt fear of the unknown and a fear of predators. They are metaphors for these things and analogous of our feelings towards them. Some have faded into the distance and are paid little attention to, others have developed and become more pertinent and terrifying over time. The best ones reflect something about our human nature or what we are afraid of in real life. If you think of the traditional horror archetypes a few names immediately spring to mind: Dracula/vampires, Werewolves, Frankenstein’s monster, Zombies, Ghosts and more general “monsters” like Aliens, cenobytes, etc all have a very prominent place in popular culture and the public awareness. Most of these are as old as humanity themselves. There is enough thesis work done on this at length but basically since we sat around campfires telling stories the model for an unspecified or specific agent of terror has developed based on what we are afraid of. The most recent of which has been, ironically, ourselves. The dawn of the slasher film, born out of those urban legends of hooks on car doors and so on, preys on our fears of the horror of the human and what a diseased mind can do that is just as horrific. Personally I don’t care for this type of horror fare. There are few films/books that tell these stories that don’t rely on shock and or gore which has no long lasting effect or genuine terror. For me at least.

I worry that this trend for fairly paint by numbers ‘Horror’ is taking over as I went online and performed one of my favourite pastimes: masturb watching film trailers. I watched a few and several were of the horror movie genre. Sadly three of them looked exactly the same; people in silly masks terrorising a group of people in a house. This was done to much greater effect in the excellent Funny Games and the key to it was not shock it was the unbearable tension and its simplicity of involving a real human fear of pain and uncertainty. A fear that has kept us alive as a species it should be made clear. Somewhat depressed by the fact I realised I had seen very few horror movies of recent times that really effected and unsettled me, I took to Twitter and asked if there were any good ‘uns about. A flood of answers came in immediately and with great relish I wrote many of them down and if I ever get any money ever again I will hunt the said films out but what I noticed about the suggestions is that, as I have said, they tended to be more about the uncanny and unsettling rather than just plain gory.

Despite being radically altered in recent years the archetypes listed above play on some fundamental fears we have as humans (and some newly developed ones courtesy of society). Subtextually a lot of horror stories rely on actual things that can kill us or cause us pain. Again, a professor’s ruin of academic paperwork has been churned out on this subject but ultimately the big hitters have been boiled down to: Frankenstein and our modern fear of science gone wrong/mad, Zombies are our natural fear of death – a slow, shambling, malevolent force that will always get us in the end, Vampires were always more about the idea of a sexually transmitted disease but after Dracula mixed with this with the notion of lust it was probably misappropriated as a warning against promiscuity and the dangers of the desire to lose ones virginity to the disreputable (see Twilight for this ideology in full lunacy), ‘Monsters’ et al have always been the fear of the uncanny and what we do not know or understand that we keep away from (something like Alien or Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a good example) but for me it was always werewolves that were endlessly fascinating.

I write this because I have just read “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter, a collection of short stories based on old folk tales and horror legends, it is notable as this is where ‘The Company of Wolves’ comes from. A sexually charged retelling of Red Riding Hood and the Huntsman. In fact if any phrase summed up  this collection it would be “sexually charged”. I learned about this particular tome from my fantastic feminist friends over at For Books’ Sake while they were at a literature conference where this book came under discussion. It is seen as something of a feminist piece of literature which is most certainly what it is. Each story centers on a woman or is told by a woman and they are normally the ones in control of the narrative but each one revolves around sex in quite an explicit fashion. Now I do not and never shall claim to know anything of women’s problems or the desires/thoughts of their sex but I do try to sympathise if I cannot empathise. As such, being the ignorant dolt I am, I was intrigued to find each story involved a man depicted quite literally as a creature (lion, tiger, wolf), female nudity described in lingering detail and, in the majority, the removal of skin of both sexual parties to reveal another beneath. Now, yet again, greater thinkers than I who are much better informed than I have written reams of study on this subject but it did sort of confirm (from the male point of view) what I suspected about the Werewolf’s etymology.

Werewolves personify violence, aggression and the animalistic and primal urges deep within us. I’ve known this for sometime but reading it from a woman’s perspective really opened my eyes. Since childhood I have had a pretty bad temper which I have learned to control by ultimately being a sullen and grumpy man who doesn’t often get excited by things and most certainly does not get into confrontations. Sadly when I do lose my temper its a particularly unpleasant experience for all (I am NOT violent toward people I would like to make emphatically clear. I have only ever hurt my sister as a young boy in my temper and since then swore I would never hit or harm anyone ever again) as I shout, kick and hit inanimate objects and throw things. I’ve broken a lot of personal artifacts and upset many people I care about in this fashion and after these particular outbursts I feel utterly ashamed and terrible, clamming up for days. It is probably no wonder then that Werewolves are a creature that I am interested in at such a deep level. The idea that something is inside you against your will that will break out a given moment (I incidentally find it in no way a coincidence that the full moon, that is once a month, controls ‘the change’. Something Carter repeatedly points out in its similarity to the female menses) and change you into something that does not discriminate between friend or foe or lover or loathed and desires only it whim of either murder or sex, is something that I think pretty much every man I know battles with on a regular basis.

What is unique is how poorly werewolves are represented in modern cultural output. I can’t name many modern werewolf films that are any good and not many books either, certainly not a great many successes. Yet the werewolf persists as it is perceived by both sexes as an accurate description of the more unpleasant and baser parts of our nature and yet something we cannot seem to be rid of. I say both sexes as one of the best stories involving lycanthropes is a film called ‘Ginger Snaps’ which I heartily recommend as it tells the parallel tale of a girl becoming a woman (getting her period) and becoming a werewolf. You can watch it for free on youtube if you like. The only trouble is that people can see this as an excuse. “That’s just the way we are”, people might say. I don’t think that. I do my very best to not to lose my temper these days but it does slip out occasionally and I haven’t gone “Full Meltdown” for some years. Its a particularly unpleasant side of me that is always there that I do not like and would happily be rid of but I certainly do not indulge it which a lot of people do. It is a wolf. It does hurt when it comes out. It hurts others and it is crushingly shameful afterward. The nudity the victims in werewolf stories are left with in the morning is pretty symbolic of the nudity you do feel after an “outbreak”. We control this side of us all the time I think and it is rare when it does come out and when it does it is justifiably shocking. We are hopefully evolving beyond the need for this baser side of ourselves and will hopefully be rid of it once and for all eventually. Until then we continue to “keep the beast caged”.

Over the years many many werewolf stories have occurred to me for the very reasons listed above and I had grand plans of making them into films, TV series or novels but with the cynicism of age I realise this won’t happen so after reading “The Bloody Chamber” the various ideas would probably make a good short story collection revolving around this particular mythical creature. One day I’ll get around to it (I’m a bit busy at the moment) so in the meantime if you fancy some lycanthropic literature or cinema in your life here’s a list of some of my favourites:

  • American Werewolf in London
  • Ginger Snaps
  • The Wolfman (1941)
  • The Beast Must Die
  • Dog Soldiers
  • The Howling
  • The Bloody Chamber
  • Lord Loss
  • Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban
  • Wolf (1994)

Do you have a favourite werewolf book or film? Do you think we should ditch the werewolf archetype altogether? Do you agree we’re horrible creatures caged in human skin? Or am I just an abusive brute who is fundamentally flawed as a human being? Answers on Ghostcard.

Freax & Rejex

I am sick of job applications and it is depressingly long and stressful work, so I am taking a break to write a post. Enjoy.

I’ve actually been meaning to write this for months but life kind of got in the way. A while back I wrote a review of a book by one of my favourite Authors, Robin Jarvis. I predicted at the time, due to his recent writing pattern we may never see a sequel despite it ending on a cliffhanger but I was pleasantly surprised to see the sequel appear on schedule without so much as a cough. I only found it on one of my weekly tours of Waterstones to pine over things I want. Anyway, I bought it and read it that week most evenings after work. I have not been reading at all lately and when I do it is mainly poetry and it goes to show that was months ago now and I have only read one ‘Novel’ since. Either way, it was nice to have that feeling of running home to a book you are enjoying again but now living my life in my flat means I’d probably get through a novel in a day and to be honest I’ve got more important stuff to be doing at the moment.

Anyway…

Dancing Jax, the first novel in the series, I thoroughly enjoyed but pointed out at the time that A). It was not a kids book and B). It was going to date very badly. For the second installment he has stuck to A) and taken it further but scaled back on B). This, in my opinion, makes it the stronger of the two.

Freax and Rejex is set after the first novel and is set in a Britain that has fallen under the spell of the evil book Dancing Jacks and its creator. There are wafts of post apocalyptic and zombie stories towards the start as Jarvis sets the scene in brutal and unforgiving fashion. The main bulk of the story deals with the lives of a small group of teenagers who are immune to the effects of the book who are rounded up to be brought into the fold. When this doesn’t work the children, and this is what I mean about it not being for kids, are locked in an internment camp where they are tortured, starved and forced into dangerous labour to the delight of their, literally, monstrous guards.

The premise may be preposterous but it is a testament to Jarvis’ writing style that he can write about something as silly as a book hypnotising the entire planet and monsters being brought to earth from another dimension but make it terrifyingly real and unpleasant. The group of children are very well observed and, like the book before it, not drawn from stereotypes. The dialogue is believable and enjoyable too. All of this adds up to characters you invest in which makes Jarvis’ sheer delight in literally torturing and then, without wishing to spoil anything, murdering most of them all the more scary and harrowing.

There are a couple of mystery plot threads concerning one child who can apparently flit between the dream world of the book and the real world as well as one of the group of children is a spy for the enemy but you don’t know which is which till the end. This merely serves to connect the book to the over arching story and keeps the plot trundling along but in general Jarvis seems far more concerned with the characters and their interaction with their slowly disintegrating world and the brutal and monstrous guards, all of which are honestly horrific. It is the details which make it appalling: The punchinello guards are alcoholics that vomit and defecate wherever they please, they pick their own clothes dressing as a cowboy, a priest, a gangster rapper and superhero, they break a boy’s hand to stop him playing guitar, they whip a young girl, they lock the same girl in a shed for three days without food or water, a guard tries to rape one of them, one of them is shot to death, one is impaled on a spear that the rest of the children are then forced to bury and all of this culminating with, without a word of a lie, fucking CANNIBALISM. Can be found in the Young Adults section, ladies and gentlemen.

This novel is flat-out horror. None of this wishy-washy teenage vampire/werewolf emo toss, this is grotesque and stomach churning horror. It has monsters and fairies and children running away and spunky protagonists and derring do like any other kids novel but this is buried beneath the chapter by chapter cruelty and child abuse you have to read through. I hear The Hunger Games is pretty brutal and would quite like to read/watch that too but you would really have to be going some to even approach the pervasive menace and pitch black tone Freax & Rejex achieves. Like Alice in Wonderland set in the Gulag.

And I LOVE it.

Jarvis, for good or ill, has never shied away from very dark stories despite using tropes and settings from books for children: talking mice, children and magic, talking teddy bears, etc. This is why he is one of my favourites. As a child, reading The Dark Portal was like finding the book you weren’t meant to be reading and I loved it. It was an adventure, it had magic and monsters in it, ghosts and fortune-telling, sword fights, dark gods, mystery, but was so willfully subversive by putting in truly horrific and scary and violent scenes creating this really dark and creepy atmosphere. There is something so delightfully fucked up in the way he does it, like someone taking a kids finger painting and drawing a realistic and veiny cock on it. The zenith of which is a scene where to avoid detection two of the good mice must hide beneath a pile of their fellow mice’s skins to avoid detection. How messed up is that? And yet how brilliant.

Jarvis seems incapable of writing a light or ‘fluffy’ book. Your favourite characters don’t survive a Jarvis book, the bad guys tend to win more than they lose, love does not conquer all, you are going to be shoved through the ringer for the emotional high, you’ve bought your ticket, you take your seat, you watch the horrors unfolding. Jarvis is one of the best horror writers because he understands what makes something horrific: Characters who are like you and who are sympathetic and complex, forced to confront the evils of human nature and, even worse, that which they don’t understand. Freax and Rejex is probably a career high for Jarvis in this respect. He pulls no punches and really stretches out. The result is an engaging and enjoyable book that puts the likes of Stephen King et al to shame. I never put down a true blue “Horror” novel with a feeling of nausea but this one I did. I think the main reason is that no other author will subject children (in the novel and their readership) to such horrors.

Obviously, this isn’t for everyone, but I do think young adults will enjoy it just for its grotequeries if nothing else. With the likes of the insidiously evil yet somehow still bland Stephanie Meyer and her clones clogging up the teen novel market I think kids will appreciate an unvarnished and not-dumbed-down tale of horror and adventure that will keep them reading through the night. If you are a horror fan I would urge you to read it too as I am yet to read anything quite so unsettling. Robin Jarvis fans should check it out to as it is probably his best written novel so far and delivers on many things he has shied from in previous books. Dark Portal and Thomas still resolutely hold my No.1 in his cannon but objectively this is probably his best.

I ask for little from a book other than it take me out of my boring life and put me somewhere different and Freax and Rejex does that and more. This one comes highly recommended.

Cabin in the Woods

So, I must confess to not quite getting Joss Wheedon. Certainly not any more. I loved Buffy when it first came on the TV. Dad and I, then latterly Mum and I, were big fans. But whilst he’s still clearly good  he made a trademark out of being very post modern in his writing and very referential in his genre pieces. Now, however, it is turning out to be almost self-referential and being post modernist now and very self aware, whilst original when Buffy first emerged, that was 15 years ago. ‘Modernism’ has moved on. This brings me to Cabin in the Woods…

Cabin in the Woods is what nerds like to call a ‘Meta-Narrative’ on a specific type of genre, namely horror/slasher films. The characters are stock (deliberately), the set up is predictable (deliberately) and the actual initial ‘Horror’ element is paint by numbers (deliberately), to stop this disappearing up its own arse this is pointed out by the fact –

oh yeah *SPOILERS!*

-There is a shady government initiative setting all this up and putting them in this scenario. The reasons for this become apparent later. The REAL reason for this was that it is an excuse for a cold, exterior eye to dispassionately appraise the goings on. Cue every bit of Wheedon based wise-cracking you can muster: Oh so referential, oh so post-modernist, lots of fourth wall breaking, pompous bubble bursting, if you have seen Buffy or any Wheedon written/created fare you know the drill. As such, whilst this produces some funny lines, this wears thin about an hour or so in when it actually just becomes the very horror movie it is attempting to parody, cynical wise cracking suits notwithstanding.

AND THEN

They seem to get bored of that and go “Anyway, here’s what I REALLY wanted to show you!” The last half an hour of this film is a blast, all restraint goes out of the window and the premise they spent at length setting up is delivered in as over the top way as possible. And that is why I recommend going to see this film. The third act is highly rewarding and well worth the price of admission. I don’t want to spoil it and to be honest I guessed (it isn’t difficult) what was coming about a 3rd of the way in but when it comes you really get a buzz out of it. However… I do have my gripes.

  • Wheedon Dialogue
    As I said it was funny and clever 15 years ago, not as much now. Wheedon fans clearly still love it as whenever it was mentioned by various friends (all Wheedon fanatics who hadn’t even seen it yet) it came with a free coating of fan saliva. Sure enough, 10 seconds in a bunch of scantily clad, irredeemably beautiful 20 somethings are exchanging snarky quick fire “ironic” witticisms and we’ve already had one cheap scare. Please change the record Joss.
  • Fan Wank
    I am completely confounded by the 5 star ratings and breathlessly superlative language used to describe this film. “Game-Changer” and “Ground breaking” seemed to sum up the way people referred to this film. WHAT?! If you refer to the fact it is a slightly snooty, superior-minded, genre flick supposedly pardoying other films of the genre, might I remind you that this was done Sixteen Chuffing Years Ago? Methods have changed but not only is it that specific type of parody that just points at the thing it parodies and laughs hoping others will too, it is even doing it to the the same genre. It is not as clever as people are saying it is. The supposed “neck cracking twists” are not that alarming once you get about halfway and, having seen the trailer, I wasn’t all that taken aback by a lot of them anyway. If Joss Wheedon and Drew Goddard (the Director and fellow Mutant Enemy/Buffy alumnus) really think they were deconstructing the genre narrative to totally change the way we see the genre, they are WRONG. If you’ve read any books and seen any of Wheedon or Goddard’s work you can figure it all out. It bugs me that so many people elevated this film to God-like status but I suppose the foetuses that are the teenagers watching it never saw Scream the 1st time round so a recap was due. If Wheedon and Goddard simply wanted to use the tropes and idiom of Horror for a bit of a nerd-gasm then good on ’em. They succeeded. That is all this is though. Don’t act like its some angelic, Hollywood changing bible. At least I bloody HOPE it isn’t…
  • CGI
    I used to be such an advocate of this… This film has THE worst CGI I have seen in a movie to date and considering we are nearly two decades in since its inception that is saying something. The nadir of which is in fact the last shot of the film which was a massive let down and reminded me of that cop out shot in Cloverfield (another Goddard project) where they show you the whole of the monster. Either way, I don’t know if we have reached the bottom of the uncanny valley now but there is an almost audible and certainly visual clunk when any CG appears on screen. There’s a CG bird at the beginning (and in the trailer too. Go watch!) that on the big screen looks worse than a sodding puppet. Even the CG blood is pathetic. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they ran out of budget (doubtful) or time (even less likely) or maybe it’s deliberately satirising it. I can’t tell quite how many litres of piss this film is taking at any one time. Either way, everytime it appears I’m hoisted out of the film like Keanu Reeves doing Wire-Fu.

On the flip side, there are pros –

  • Wheedon Dialogue
    Loathe as I am to admit it, the occasional funny line did make me chuckle and at least two of the characters are well drawn but they have the least time spent on them. It is definitely time to move on from this approach to dialogue but it still makes for the odd good laugh and enjoyable skewering of certain cinematic cliches which I heartily endorse. Zombie hands are, yet again, made creepy and funny.
  • Fan Wank
    Whilst Wheedon fans can Fuck Right Off ™ the film is especially rewarding if you know and enjoy horror films. The trailers are wrong by telling us how presumptuous we are to assume we know the story but right in assuming you’ll be pleased if you do know the genre. Again, without wishing to spoil anything, it does a great job satiating most desires whatever your taste in horror by the end and is really quite satisfying in that regard.
  • CGI
    It is still shit BUT there is hardly any of it! YAY! FOR ONCE a director has seen the merits of CGI and only used it as an enhancement not a crutch. Hot tip for directors: Practical effects are cheaper, look better and are more convincing.  70% of the visual effects are done ‘in camera’ I’d say and are all the better for it. A CG monster you can show from any angle in any light and that reduces its effect. A man in a suit needs to be shot and lit in a certain way for it to look convincing, a good cinematographer knows this and uses it to his own advantages. Not only that but the leaps in technology of the suits the people wear is vastly improved. So the ‘things’ that are after our protagonists are actually pretty convincing and creepy and altogether more Monstrous.
  • Drew Goddard
    Despite having had a hand in the brilliant but flawed Lost and Cloverfield, Cabin in the Woods is sterling stuff for a directorial debut. It helped he had a lot of money behind him and Joss “I am my own cliche” Wheedon as a producer/co-writer but whilst Wheedon’s presence is felt in the story and narrative structure it is the adornments that could only have been performed by Goddard that makes the film so much fun, especially towards the end. Again, his approach to the CG is evidently one of wariness so he sticks to a more practical approach which is much more enjoyable. The timing, the key to those scares and funny lines, is perfect, the sign of a good director. In general it is taught, well paced and builds very well to the climax (apart from that stupid last shot). In Baseball they use a phrase which has been purloined by the film industry: Set up, pitch and pay off. The set up is deliberately formulaic, the pitch is well balanced to the point it just is what it is parodying but the pay off, like a good batsman, uses these two things and knocks it out of the park. Whilst not particularly ‘scary’ per se, it is thrilling and a real popcorn movie. A damn fine debut. Sincerely hope his fellow Lost writer Damon Lindelof will pull it out of the bag for Prometheus and not a dud like Cowboys & Aliens.

Basically my two biggest problems are the CG and whether or not Wheedon thinks he’s being clever because ‘clever’ this film ain’t. Knowledgeable of its audience and genre? Yes. Clever enough to redefine it? No. It is, at its best, a great big bag of popcorn fun and at its worst a formulaic slasher, somewhat ironically it would seem. What I find weird is the people who are throwing perfect ratings at this film’s feet are probably Wheedon/Goddard fans anyway so I assume are familiar with their well established resume of referential and deliberately self-aware productions (Lost, Alias, Cloverfield, Buffy, Firefly etc). As such, even I, someone who likes a lot of those but does not obsess over them, could see where things were going just from the trailer. But as I say, I can’t tell if this is parody or pontification. But my argument is that if you can’t tell whether Wheedon/Goddard are taking the piss – sorry, satirising through a Meta-Narrative – then I don’t care how clever it is trying to be, you are so far up your own arse you’re coming out of your mouth again. IF however, they aren’t making any bones about it and just used the premise as a frame for the best bit of cinematic fan fiction in the last half hour, I praise them to high and mighty. Kudos.

In short, if you like horror films you’ll love it. If you want to be entertained you will be. If you like Joss Wheedon, you’re already spamming me with hate mail…

 

P.S. Plot hole: HOW DO THEY COLLECT THE BLOOD THAT GOES ON THOSE GLASS PLATES?! I DEMAND ANSWERS!