Autodidact: self-taught

Jul
11
2014

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

by V. L. Craven

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

S. is the name of the book that you purchase, which is in a slipcase and shrink-wrapped. The book in the slipcase, however, is titled The Ship of Theseus and is purportedly by ‘V.M. Straka’. It looks like a library book from the 50s or 60s completely with stamps and the paper even looks properly aged. A friend of mine (dragornaked89) pointed out the book doesn’t smell old, though, so it wasn’t 100% authentic, but it was still a marvel in printing. (Particularly for $35US.)

Part of the mind-bogglingness of the book is attention to detail. There’s a conversation being carried out in the margins between two university students—a male and a female. The book is left in the library for the other to pick up and leave further comments on both what they’re reading and what’s going on in their lives. The book is read three times by the characters (you only read it once) and it’s easy to tell by the handwriting and pen or pencil used which pass you’re reading. (It sounds complicated but I promise it’s not.)

And there are all sorts of bits and bobs between the pages—photographs and letters and hand-drawn maps on napkins and postcards that only add to the realism. Pro tip: I found the code wheel that was meant to be used right from the start near the end of my reading—it had got stuck to the inside of the back cover so I didn’t get to play along with some of the code-breaking. Check the inside of your back cover.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

It’s that round thing. It was hiding from me.

The book, The Ship of Theseus reminds me of Nabokov in a way. That story is interesting on its own—a sort of nowhere but possibly European dream-state novel. I would like to discuss it specifically with anyone who’s read the book. I have some ideas of what certain elements represented but I’d like to discuss it with other people.

The overarching theme of the entire work is the question of identity and what it is—what defines us. This is embodied in S., who has amnesia and is trying to figure out who is he, much like the students—an undergrad nearly finished with a degree she took to make her parents happy but now doesn’t know what to do with her life; and a grad student studying Straka whose work has been taken from him, leaving him with nothing to show for his years of scholarship. Then V.M. Straka may or may not be a real person but whomever or whatever it was that wrote several incredible books still made a huge contribution to the world of literature—so does it matter if he was real?

Jul
10
2014

Russian Ark

by V. L. Craven

Russian Ark

At the beginning of Russian Ark , you wake up, somehow transported to … someplace unfamiliar. You discover you can speak Russian, though you’ve never spoken it before. Before you, you see a group of boisterous people alighting from horse-drawn carriages. They’re in elaborate dress on their way to some sort of party. And they cannot see or hear you. Perhaps you’ve died.

Then you are joined by someone else, visible only to you and dressed in clothes from a different century. ‘The European’ guides you through the rooms of this grand palace, commenting on various pieces of art. The palace, though never named, is the Hermitage Museum  and the European is meant to be the Marquis de Custine , who was quite the critic of Russian culture.

Each room or section of the film depicts a different era of Russian history, though not in chronological order. Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Nicholas II and his children all make appearances. It has the feel of a European dream-state novel–I often felt as though metaphors were sailing past my head, but then another piece of art would come into view and it wouldn’t matter.

The film itself is sumptuous. The art is beautiful, obviously, (there’s a wonderful 360 close up shot of The Three Graces by Canova) and the hundreds of costumes are breathtaking. Shot in a continuous 96 minute take and featuring over 2,000 actors and three orchestras, with an opera and an elaborate dance sequence it was no small technical feat, either. The documentary about the making of Russian Ark is called In One Breath (it’s available on the DVD, the first part of five is here  on You Tube) and it’s worth the watch to see how they did it.

The more you know about Russian history the more you’ll get out of the film (which I admittedly know very little) but it’s still gorgeous to look at and is probably the closest I’ll get to visiting the Hermitage. So I highly recommend it. 5/5.

Jun
20
2014

Lapham’s Quarterly: The Death Issue

by V. L. Craven

Laphams Quarterly: The Death Issue

When I heard the Fall issue of Lapham’s Quarterly was to be called the Death Issue I knew I had to have it. It’s my introduction to the literary journal so I thought I’d put down my thoughts.

This being my first experience with any literary journal (and being an unemployed individual) my initial reaction was to the price ($16US) but it’s over 200 pages of high-quality material (both physically and content-wise) so after the shock subsided, I took it home.

It is truly a thing of beauty. The covers are that texture that’s become quite popular for electronics and book covers that feels like rubber and suede had a few too many drinks and decided to spend a freaky night together. (It’s called Soft Touch.) The paper is a heavy-weight stock, as well–it’s not the sort of periodical that finds its way to the recycling bin after it’s been read.

The layout is artful–nearly every page has a photograph or artwork concerning the issue’s theme. There are small poems and quotes tucked amongst larger pieces, as well. Longer poems get their own pages, like Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’.

Besides poetry and quotes there are facts about death rituals from around the world, graphs and timelines about causes of death and numbers of deaths during various catastrophes and tables of resting places of some of the most famous people in history, amongst other things. It’s a macabre trivia-lover’s dream.

There are non-fiction pieces–letters, diary entries, interviews and excerpts from books. The section on How We Die was spectacular. Mary Roach’s excellent Stiff was excerpted. Anatole Broyard’s excerpt is heart-breaking. A piece on the funerary rites of the Rus  written by Ahmad ibn Fadlan in 922 was quite interesting.

And fiction, of course. The entirety of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ was included, much to my delight. There was an excerpt from Nabokov’s The Eye and Philip Roth had a darkly comic bit from  Sabbath’s Theatre .

There are also myths and tales from philosophers and histories meant to teach the reader about living wisely. A bit of Herodotus’ The Histories was particularly enlightening.

Entries are widely varied both in time (the earliest is a section of ‘Iphigenia in Aulis’ by Euripides written in 1200 BCE) and scope, as they come from many nations and cultures–some long extinct.

There is nothing negative to say about this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The selections come from people approaching death–some literally, some only in contemplation, some in the wake of losing someone close to them. And the contents reflect the myriad ways humanity responds to those situations. I highly recommend this one.

Jun
19
2014

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

by V. L. Craven

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

 

Carl Panzram  was arrested for murder and confessed to an impressive number of crimes including thousands of robberies, larcenies, arson, 22 murders and over 1,000 instances of sodomy on males. This was in 1928, when that level of depravity was simply unheard of. How could anyone be that evil?

This documentary is partially about Panzram himself, but it’s largely about the penal system, and its failings. Panzram got his start with the U.S. justice system very early on when he was sent to the Minnesota State Training School when he was twelve, where beatings to the point of bruises and blood were the rule of the day. He ran away on more than one occasion and was always punished with much vigour upon being caught.

Several experts weighed in–one of whom was Katherine Ramsland , a professor of forensics psychology. She pointed out that often serial killers will blame their behaviour on other people–Panzram blamed his poor treatment by his parents. Ramsland points out Panzram had several siblings who all turned out all right, intimating that their childhood could not have been so bad. Perhaps she wasn’t taking into account his brain trauma, which is a key part of the triumvirate of causes of sociopathy. (The other two being extreme abuse and mental illness.) Or that he was severely beaten and humiliated at school, which his siblings weren’t? Or that the siblings of serial killers don’t generally turn out to be serial killers themselves.

One of the other people consulted was artist  Joe Coleman , who is something of an expert on the man, having done an intricate painting about his life. Coleman’s pieces are always painted with a paintbrush with one hair. His contribution to the film was a highlight.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance

A large portion of the documentary is about Panzram’s memoirs, which were written with the help of a guard in one particular prison. The guard brought pencils and paper and would take them away again once he had filled the pages. If either had been found out they both would had been in trouble. One more than the other, though, obviously.

One of the most striking (and disheartening) features is how little the penal system has changed in the decades since his imprisonment and death. People are put into a dehumanizing system and are then expected to behave like model citizens. Panzram’s thoughts on this are particularly eloquent.

Carl Panzram: The Spirit of Hatred and Vengeance was an interesting enough documentary about one of the U.S.’s first well-known and most brutal serial killers and the way the criminal justice system has (not) changed. I’d rate it 7/10.

May
28
2014

The Aeonian Academy

by V. L. Craven
The Aeonian Academy

Athena, Parthenon, Athens, Interior Model, Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have begun writing a novel that will be absorbing much of my time. It has it’s own blog: The Aeonian Academy , which focuses on art, classics, mythology (chiefly Greco-Roman & Egyptian), nature and literature.

The site is more about being part of the world of the characters–it’s 99% images–than about the process of writing. I’ve always found it useful to immerse myself in the world of my books and that site is an excellent way to do so. The characters’ world is one of beauty and books (and tea) and so that is what you’ll find there. I hope you’ll consider joining us.

I will still post here, but posts will be sporadic and will no longer automatically be concerned solely with the macabre.

May
16
2014

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

by V. L. Craven

Still Life by Melissa Milgrom

Taxidermy has always given me a touch of the screaming fantods. I’m fine with dead humans in whatever form. If Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds came anywhere in my vicinity I’d be first in line. But animals… eh, I don’t know. It’s always been a little too creepy for me. I suppose I hold animals in too high regard.

Then I became friends with a taxidermist and learned just how much they have to know to excel at what they do. It’s not just cutting open a dead animal, pulling out the insides, stuffing whathaveyou in it and sewing it back up. They have to know about biology, physiology, natural habitats and a host of other things. It’s boggling.

So when I heard about Melissa Milgrom’s  Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy I was excited to be able to learn more about the history and current state of the profession. It’s along the lines of Mary Roach in terms of conversational tone and covers taxidermy from the very beginning to its heyday, through its decline and up to the present day.

Some of the most interesting sections involved Damien Hirst and his taxidermist (he doesn’t do the actual preserving of sharks, cows and sheep), Mr Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, and the differences between the US and UK taxidermy scenes. But the entire book was engaging, full of characters. Taxidermists may be solitary types, but they certainly aren’t boring.

Milgrom seems a bit more detached from her subject than Roach–more journalistic–and lends less of a sense of humour to things but it was still an enjoyable read and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the subject.

May
09
2014

British Gothic Cinema

by V. L. Craven

British Gothic Cinema

Castles and howling wind (or is it wolves), lightning and thunder and perpetual murk. Capes and lace and bodices and everyone’s overwrought about everything all the time. There’s a candelabra on every other horizontal surface. You know the drill. It’s Gothic. And, if you’ve watched a certain type of film you’re probably picturing Hammer horror films.

British Gothic Cinema by Barry Forshaw is about the influence of British filmmakers on horror cinema from the very beginning of film. Hammer gets a (deservedly) large portion of the book, but other companies like Amicus get their time, as well. Forshaw clearly knows his material and history–explaining how the censorship codes (blood on cleavage used to give people the vapours)–were slowly chipped away.

There are interviews with the some of the key players of the time, and honest reviews of performances by the staple players like Peter Cushing, Vincent Price (shipped in from the States to bring in the crowds) and Christopher Lee. No stone is left unturned–it’s an exhaustive work. Forshaw’s love for the subject shows.

This is an excellent companion to the BBC4 documentary A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss . Indeed, Gatiss is mentioned a few times in the end of the book, as are Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. British Gothic Cinema, on the whole, is about horror cinema, and the British influence on it, though the earliest contributions were period Gothic pieces.

Very academic, I would recommend it only for people already interested in Gothic cinema or fans of film history, but for them it’s a must-read. There are some film spoilers for very well-known films, but if you’re a fan of the genre you’ve probably already seen them. (I didn’t find this to be a problem.) The biggest quibble I had were the typos, of which there were more than a few.

Overall, I did enjoy it, am glad I read it and wound up with a long list of films to watch.

[I was given a free copy of this to review, but was under no obligation to give a positive review.]

May
08
2014

The Act of Killing

by V. L. Craven

The Act of Killing

 

Werner Hertzog said, ‘I have not seen a film as powerful, frightening and surreal in at least a decade.’ Well. I had to see this.

In Indonesia in 1965 over 1 million communists were murdered. Today the people who ordered and did the murdering are happily living their lives–talking openly about their acts on television, heroes to their fellow Indonesians. The Act of Killing is about a few of those men. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn asked the men to dramatise–in any way they wish–their involvement in the extermination (a word the men use  a lot of the Communists. The documentary consists of interviews with the men interspersed with scenes from the films the men write, direct and act in.

Much of the film revolves around Anwar Congo from the paramilitary–and a self-described gangster. He’s obsessed with the idea of gangsters being ‘free men’–free to do whatever they want, whether it’s good or bad. He was heavily influenced by Marlon Brando, Robert Deniro and Al Pacino.

When we first meet Congo, he happily tells us about how beating people to death left too much blood so they came up with a better–less messy–way that involved garroting. He demonstrated using the garrote on someone and later when watching the footage of this he only commented on his clothes and wondered if he should dye his hair black.

Though he doesn’t outwardly show guilt over it he says he takes drugs and drinks not to think about some of the things he’s done, but it’s in the same matter-of-fact, nearly cheerful tone.  And after playing one of the tortured victims in a scene and realising the people he killed were actual people, he becomes physically ill. He’s not a sociopath.

His fellow executioner, Adi Zulkadry takes a more pragmatic approach. He’s aware that morality is subjective. When asked about war crimes and the Hague he points out that you only get called up on war crimes if you lose. His viewpoint was the most complex–he was the only person in the documentary who’d moved out of Indonesia and was no longer in contact with Congo or the others. He was aware that showing people what they’d done would show them in a bad light, but he still thought he hadn’t done anything wrong. And, from a certain point of view, he hadn’t. If people are giving you money and weapons to kill loads of people and telling you those people are worthless, then clearly, those people deserve to be killed, right?

One of the most interesting aspects was the way democracy worked. If you think the government of the United States is corrupt have a look at the Indonesian government. It’s incredible. It’s not about whether or not you’re going to be extorted, it’s who you’re going to be extorted by. And all votes are bought–openly. Democracy! It’s fortunate they got rid of those pesky Communists, though.

In Adam Nayman’s interview with Joshua Oppenheimer (one of the directors) he calls the subjects ‘certifiably insane’. But these men are not insane. Exterminating things you’ve been told are less-than-human in order to protect your country makes you a hero–it doesn’t make you insane–which is what these men thought they were doing.

Later on in the article, Nayman talks about psychic distancing. He’s referring to the way the men compare themselves to the film stars they admire–therefore distancing themselves from the horror of their actions–but calling the men certifiably insane is also a form of psychic distancing. Anyone familiar with Milgram’s study or the Stanford Prison Experiment should know how easy it is to turn people against one another.

If a person was raised in an environment where they were told that Communists were the epitome of evil and were then given the support of Western democracies in overthrowing those Communists of course they would think they’d done something admirable. Also, people don’t want to think badly of themselves–they will justify their actions at all costs. The worse the action the more vehement the justification.

And let’s not forget: If you win, you’re right. You’re right because you get to write the histories that say you’re right.

The white man came to the new world and slaughtered ‘savages’, then enslaved more ‘savages’ and then wrote stories and made films about how they were the superior race.  How they ‘tamed’ the land.

If Hitler had remained in Germany rather than invading other countries he could have probably ‘purified’ the German race and the rest of the world would have left him alone. And then Nazis would now view themselves as having done the country a favour, having eradicated all of the undesirable elements. They could make films about it. But Hitler invaded other countries and the Allied countries intervened, the Nazis lost and thus, they committed crimes against humanity. And rightly so.

If some factions of China asked for our help to crush the Communist regime would we give it? Would the average Westerned support the idea? Absolutely. What’s worse than Communism? And what would happen to the Communists? In fifty years would you be comfortable watching a documentary about who did what to those Communists? But they would be heroes.

I thought The Act of Killing was going to be about what happens when the bad guys win and are venerated, but it turned out to be about what happens when a group of people are dehumanised, allowing them to be murdered and then those murderers to be dehumanised. As though anyone else wouldn’t be capable of doing the same thing given the correct circumstances.

May
05
2014

Great Minds Blog Tour

by V. L. Craven

I have been invited by Michael Hibbard  to join in the Great Minds blog tour of writer/bloggers. And thank you, Mr Hibbard for the kind words.

Before I answer the questions before me, I should like to tag Mr Paddy Kelly , author of Erotic Refugees. I’ve recently finished reading his latest manuscript that is, frankly, incredible–it will appeal hugely to fans of Neil Gaiman. It has that YA/adult cross-over appeal, as well. Very inventive and wonderful. We just need to find the man a publisher. He’ll be the next stop on the Great Mind’s blog tour, so be sure to check out his blog next Monday.

On to the questions:

1. What am I working on?

Just last week I started making notes for a novel about an woman who is invited to join a centuries-old intellectual organisation for people who do not excel at learning in a structured environment but who are encouraged to pursue their interests as fervently as they wish. But there are always prices to pay for getting what you most wish for.

 

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure I would say that it does–much of my writing is literary fiction along the lines of Patricia Highsmith. Where normal people appear to be going about their lives but things aren’t always what they seem. Or they’re pushed to the point of behaving like animals, which I think all people are capable of. The trick is to get the reader to identify with the characters completely throughout the situation to see how they would behave similarly. Very rarely do I write characters who start out evil, which is popular in media–people like black and white characters.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always had lots of things going on in my head–conversations, ideas, places, characters. I often write to play with those things–to see if I can make characters fit together. Or, like this novel I’m about to begin, it has several characters from different stories that either didn’t quite work or I didn’t start yet and it has two different organisations I’ve had ideas about for years. Suddenly, very recently, all of these things have coalesced and it’s so obvious they belong together. I feel like I’m about to bring all of these people into a room and have them do a read-through together like a play.

4. How does my writing process work?

Carrying on from the previous question, I think about characters and situations a great deal–whatever presents itself–but I’ve always had loads of imaginary friends. So I live with all of these invisible people talking around me and I listen to them and get to know them and eventually I’ll have an idea for a story they could be involved in. It always starts with the characters.

I make notes about plot, and characters–physical attributes and such. Then when I start writing I often write dialogue first, because my characters talk a lot. I write it like a play. Character One: whatever they say. Character Two: response, etc. Then I fill in their actions during the conversation. And work outward from there to descriptions and those sorts of things.

This particular novel is going to be interesting because it’s going to have a bunch of characters I’ve known for years but who’ve never ‘met’ each other. I did theatre for years growing up so writing has often felt like directing an improv group. I don’t tell them what to say or what to do–I just say, ‘This is where we’re starting and this is what needs to have happened by the end of the scene.’ And see what they do.

I suppose in response to the previous question–I write because I want to see what my characters are going to do. Readers probably think writers know exactly what’s going to happen, and writers do, to some degree, but I don’t know how these people, who are very much fully-formed people to me, are going to go about it. Or what is going to come out of their mouths.

Apr
24
2014

Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

by V. L. Craven

Countess Erzsebet Bathory  (1560-1614) is remembered by popular culture as the female version of Vlad the Impaler–a feminine Dracula. She’s thought to have tortured and bled servant girls and maidens from her lands in order to bathe in their blood in order to remain young and beautiful. Apparently it’s not as straightforward as all that.

In 2008 and 2009 there were films made about the Countess that take slightly different views on the matter.

Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

Bathory was the first of the two films–released in 2008 and starred Anna Friel. The Countess was released in 2009 and starred Julie Delphy (who also directed), as well as William Hurt.

Both are narrated by men. Bathory is narrated by someone who titles himself a ‘fool’ and The Countess by her lover, Istvan Thurzo, and the son of her greatest enemy, Gygory Thurzo (Hurt). They both admit that history is written by the winners, in this case, the people who sealed Erzsebet’s fate.

Bathory begins with Erzsebet’s betrothal to Ferenc Nadasdy,  the son of another family for political reasons at 8 or 9 [Wikipedia says this happened when she was 12] . She is portrayed as knowing nothing about sex–asking her new husband how it was supposed to work.

Likewise, The Countess begins at the very start of Erzsebet’s life and betrothal to Ferenc, but it is at her christening, when Nadasdy is a young boy that this is shown as happening. In this film she is knowledgeable about sex–sleeping with a peasant and bearing a child before her marriage at 15, which is taken away from her.


Erzsebet Bathory: A Life in Two Films

In Bathory, Erzsebet takes a lover–an artist–while she’s still married. In The Countess, she doesn’t take a lover (the aforementioned Istvan Thurzo, played by Daniel Bruhl) until after her husband has died. Thurzo is much younger than she is and this is when she begins to obsess about her looks.

In Bathory, after Erzsebet is accidentally poisoned she is saved by a woman who is said to be a witch, Darvulia (Deana Horváthová). In The Countess the character is portrayed as much younger and as a much dearer friend and companion, where she’s played by Anamaria Marinca. In the former film the character doesn’t come into Erzsebet’s life until later on, but in the latter film, she’s been in her life from very early on. They also meet drastically different ends.

Both films agree that there was a great deal of political motivation behind the accusations levelled at Erzsebet–the King owed her a great deal of money for one–but we’ll probably never know just how many peasant girls were tortured and killed.

Bathory painted Erzsebet in a much more sympathetic light. It felt like more of a historical drama than anything else. There wasn’t much blood shown but our woman was certainly not portrayed as a kind and loving saint either. It was a bit slow-moving. I’d recommend it for people interested in Erzsebet Bathory or Hungary during the 17th century, but it would probably bore people who were looking for something titillating. There is a rape scene near the beginning of the film, as a trigger warning. It’s brief and not graphic, but it’s there.

The Countess was closer to what most people have heard about Countess Bathory. There is definitely more blood and torture shown (but not even up to standard horror film levels though there is one bit that’s wince-worthy). Delphy’s interpretation is interesting because though this version is much more sadistic she still has a human side. She could have played the character as a two-dimensional, cold-blooded lunatic, but she didn’t. This one I would recommend for people interested in non-stereotypical psychopaths, along with those who like period dramas, Bathory herself, etc.

Apr
20
2014

Happy 4th Anniversary

by V. L. Craven

Today is the fourth anniversary of this blog.

This will be the 588th post. And there are 236 pages.

It’s gone through some changes over the last four years, but it’s found its niche now and I’m looking forward to the next fourth years.

As a reward for my followers, my tattoos:

Happy 4th Anniversary

Poe, corvids and Tim Burton homage.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

A logo from an academic organisation in my writing. The motto means ‘Learn so that you may live.’

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

Tree cover-up tattoo including an owl and blood moon.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

An ouroboros. A symbol of self-reflexivity.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

Alchemy symbols from the Middle Ages. From top Arsenic, Sulfuric Acid/Vitriol, Antimony.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

Brimstone/Sulfur alchemy symbol.

 

Happy 4th Anniversary

The Sigil of Astaroth, Crown Prince of Hell.

 

Apr
12
2014

Undead Survival Show

by V. L. Craven

Undead Survival Show

So let’s say the zombie apocalypse is brought about by a virus. And all of the people who have it can be contained in large areas. They don’t have to be killed–it would be difficult to do so–they do still look like humans, after all. That seems plausible, right? More plausible than the entire human race being overtaken by the undead, who, let’s be honest, aren’t exactly masterminds.

So you quarantine them in places called Red Zones. And the uninfected would go about their lives in Green Zones. But people would still be obsessed with entertainment and, therefore, someone would inevitably step up to produce a reality show during the zombie apocalypse. (Seriously, no matter what’s happening to humanity, someone is going to want to cash in on it.)

Undead Survival Show  is an upcoming webseries about just that. The protagonist is Chainsaw Martin who is an ex-Special Forces survivalist who puts himself in insanely dangerous proximity to the undead hoardes and shows the viewers at home how he gets himself out again. From the website:

“Undead Survival” is a show within a show.  It is a series of 9-to-12-minute action-comedy programs with a dark twist.  As it follows the making of television’s most popular program, actual viewers see a world separated into two zones.  The Red Zone is an abandoned wasteland where the undead reign.  Entire cities lie in ruin. Streets crack, spontaneous fires rage out of control, and buildings are nothing more than hollow tombs where the walking dead shamble in their never-ending walk. With places like New York and LA in ruin, the Green Zones are massive, walled-in city sanctuaries speckled throughout the country with names like Shreveport, Evansville, and Dayton.  The new capital of cool however, is the city of Louisville, Kentucky, where new trends are defined and excitement is always at hand. It is also where the network responsible for the creation of “Undead Survival” and several other popular programs runs its corporate offices.

Inside the Louisville green zone, the living try to spend their days as if the apocalypse was nothing more than a pesky flu.  People hold jobs, shop at the grocery, go to bars, surf the net and of course… watch television.  Still, the reality of what lies outside the walls is very present.  It has worked its way into the mental and emotional lexicon of everyone now living inside the walls.  Newscasts give daily undead reporting, businesses hock the latest zombie-wear, manufacturers produce things like Zombie-load shotgun shells and undead repellant and of course the television networks churn out series after series of undead storylines. The most popular of these is Undead Survival.

This sounds to me like the most accurate portrayal yet of what would happen during a zombie apocalypse. The show is still in pre-production, but give them some love if you can, as it sounds like an intriguing concept.

A teaser:

The YouTube channel is going to have new content coming up soon, and there’s an email list for exclusive content, as well. Check out Explosivo (the production company’s) website and Twitter for more info.

Apr
10
2014

Inside No. 9

by V. L. Craven

Inside No. 9

Inside No. 9 is the newest show from two of the four members of the League of Gentlemen , Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

Each episode is stand-alone and, being a British show, there are only six episodes. The action of each episode occurs in a different place with the address of No. 9. All are residences save one, which is dressing room number 9.

As you’d expect from these two, there are a host of creepy characters–some are in bizarre situations, others in are seemingly ordinary situations that turn surreal. All of them are original and surprising. The second episode was particularly creative, as there’s no dialogue.

Inside No. 9

The first episode ‘Sardines’, concerning a party game in a mansion that seems just a bit…off, dragged a bit, but turned out to be a nice start to the series. It fell firmly into the average people in a slowly devolving into a sinister situation sort of episode. It was also one of the funniest of the lot. Some of the guest stars in the episode were Anna Chancellor, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Katherine Parkinson and Anne Reid, which kept things interesting.

Inside No. 9

The second episode ‘A Quiet Night In’, as mentioned above, has no dialogue. Background music supplies all of the commentary about what’s going on. It concerns two hapless criminals (Sheersmith and Pemberton) who are trying to steal a piece of modern art from a house whilst the owners are in and out of the room and also in the midst of a domestic crisis. Tension is built nicely and the viewer finds themselves rooting for the ‘bad guys’, as their evening is definitely not going to plan.

Inside No. 9

The third episode ‘Tom and Gerri’ (‘her last boyfriend was Ben’) was the strongest both plot-wise and in terms of characterisation. Sheersmith is a teacher who really wants to be a writer. One day when his actress girlfriend, Gerri (Gemma Arterton), is at an audition, he has an interaction with the homeless man (Pemberton) who lives across the street. Then everything goes a bit funny and not in a ha ha sort of way.

Inside No. 9

This is followed by the weakest episode ‘Last Gasp’ about a little girl with a terminal illness who has asked the Wish-Maker charity for a visit by her favourite singer (David Bedella) for her birthday. When he dies while blowing up a balloon for her there becomes a power struggle between the adults (Pemberton, Tamsin Grieg, Sophie Thompson, Adam Deacon) over what to do with his last breath. This one never comes together. The characters felt incomplete. But I’ll forgive anything with Grieg in it.

Inside No. 9

‘The Understudy’ was the penultimate episode. The titular character (Sheersmith) is hesitant to push his luck with the overbearing lead of the company he’s in (Pemberton). His girlfriend (Lyndsey Marshal) is more ambitious for him–knowing he has more talent than he gives himself credit for. When Pemberton breaks his long sobriety our man assumes his girlfriend is to blame, but as with the play the company is performing–Macbeth–things do not go well and there is blood indeed. Julia Davis is hilarious as the lesbian stage manager.

Inside No. 9

I think my favourite episode was the final one, ‘The Harrowing’, which was of the extraordinary characters in a surreal situation type. It was about a teenage girl asked to baby-sit for an evening whilst two Poe-like characters (this is even acknowledged, much to my delight) have one of their very rare evenings out. The female character is played my Helen McCrory, who played Narcissa Malfoy in the Harry Potter films and was perfectly cast in the Madeleine Usheresque role. The girl brings her friend along, which is fortunate because the house is absolutely terrifying, with art depicting all the torments of hell. The girl is informed that she’s really there to house-sit as their older brother doesn’t actually need anything most of the time. But she’s there ‘just in case’. It was somewhat less developed in some ways, and the only one that seemed like the main characters could go on to be in other sketches. Or perhaps that was my wishful thinking.

Whether they appear in the next series or not–bring on series two, please.

Apr
04
2014

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

by V. L. Craven

Dancing Skeletons Life and Death in West Africa

Katherine Dettwyler is an anthropologist who’s been working and conducting research in Mali for decades, focusing on childhood nutrition. Dancing Skeletons: Life and Death in West Africa is a collection of her observations. In it Dettwyler introduces us to the social conventions of the region–including an extended greeting that must be got through for every person you meet that makes the obligatory, ‘Good morning, how are you, hope your weekend went well’ look like a snub.

Dettwyler has been there long enough she’s treated less like a tourist and more like an honoured guest–at times being brought special (if stomach-churning to Western palates) foods and feted at dances–at other times she’s treated like just another person walking around. There’s clearly a mutual respect between the woman and her subjects. At times, they’re more than just subjects.

Other stories are heartrending. Mali is a country with less-than-adequate medical facilities and education on the best practises for proper healthcare. This leads to higher rates of childhood disease and death. Malaria, for example, can even be drug-resistant. Something Dettwyler finds out first-hand, unfortunately.

Overall, the attitude of the people Dettwyler met was one of accepting life as it was–whether it was the child who had what we’d call Down’s Syndrome, or the woman who had such severe mental disabilities she was going to allow her child to die from malnutrition. In the Down’s Syndrome child–no one ostracised the child in anyway–she simply went about her life as happy and carefree as possible–something that wouldn’t happen in the West. In the latter case–social services would take the child from the mother immediately. But in Magnambougou there was an acceptance that some children die from malnutrition and this child would be one of them.

The most challenging chapter was probably the one about female circumcision. It follows on from the acceptance in that, when asked about it, people said it was simply the way it has always been. They usually did it when the girls were six months old so they didn’t remember it and all the girls had it done. The boys were all circumcised, as well, so it only seemed right that the girls were, too. When Dettwyler (an American) said she wasn’t circumcised, the woman she was speaking with was shocked. After all, if everyone you know. And everyone in your entire culture has forever done something, how absolutely bizarre is it to find someone who doesn’t? And then to be asked, well, why don’t you?

It’s a slim volume, but is a fascinating look into a culture quite different from the one Westerners are accustomed to. Though it’s somewhat academic, I’d still recommend it for fans of Mary Roach or people interested in anthropology in general.

Apr
03
2014

Vampires in the Cold

by V. L. Craven

Vampire films, as a genre, don’t particularly hold my interest. Immortality seems boring–humans would whine about the same problems every century–and having sex with a room-temperature body (vampires are corpses) is stomach-churning, so their sex appeal is similarly lost on me. I’m not against watching a film about vampires, but there has to be some other draw.

In this case, it’s cold climates–the beauty of a frozen landscape will get me to watch a lot of things. So this week’s film review is a comparison of two films about vampires in cold climates: Let the Right One In and 30 Days of Night.

Vampires in the Cold

Let the Right One in is based on the Swedish novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist and is about a boy who befriends his unusual new neighbour–a girl of twelve. The girl advises him to fight back against his bullies and even offers to help. Much of the story is about the budding friendship between the two young people and the boy learning to stand up for himself.

The backdrop to all of this are the horrific killings that have been happening–one man was found upside down, drained of blood; and another was attacked and murdered in front of a witness, who swore it looked like the attacker was a child.

This film is much more atmospheric and subdued than most vampire films, which was refreshing. There was also very little blood and onscreen violence, considering the trend of horror films in general. Several tropes common to vampires were handled cleverly–trusting the intelligence of the audience rather than relying on special effects. I would recommend this to fans of vamp flicks who were looking for something a bit out of the ordinary, as well as to people who simply liked a good story. I’ll definitely watch it again.

Vampires in the Cold

The premise is that the town farthest north in the U.S. experiences thirty days of darkness once a year and someone (or something) has cut them off from civilisation even further by stealing and destroying all the mobiles amongst other things. Once no one can get in or out or can contact the outside world, things start picking off the humans. Yummy, yummy humans. 

I’m going to admit that I wasn’t expecting much from this one. It looked like pretty standard fare so I just came for the pretty scenery. However, some genius in casting had Danny Huston as the lead vampire. And he had a sidekick who rather looked like Marilyn Manson, which amused me greatly.

Vampires in the Cold

‘Why do people keep asking me to sing Beautiful People?’

This one was better than I was expecting, but I’d only recommend it to people who like vampire films. It had plenty of blood and action and one very cool shot of the town that (along with Huston) made it worth the watch.

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