Devil’s Day – Andrew Michael Hurley (Review)

Devil's Day

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advanced copy of Andrew Michael Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, his follow up to the beautiful and quietly menacing debut that was The Loney. Like that first book, Devil’s Day is ensconced in the English countryside, in this case an isolated farming community in Lancashire that clings to ritual and tradition.

Narrator John Pentecost is returning to his family farm in the Briardale Valley, pregnant wife Kat in tow. His return is precipitated by both the death of his grandfather, the Gaffer, and the yearly titular ritual of Devil’s Day, where the villagers sing songs and tell stories about the time the Devil came down to the valley to make mischief.

This is a book that, like The Loney, is in no hurry, and has little concern for the machinations of a flashy or action-packed plot. That kind of story can be hard to pull off, but Hurley is adept at keeping the reader’s attention. I was rapt with Devil’s Day from the opening line to the last. I enjoyed The Loney, but this felt like a much more accomplished novel, and the folk horror element is what really did it for me. Hurley’s restraint and subtlety is still as applaudable as ever, but the feel in Devil’s Day, of stories and folktales creeping across the landscape into reality – or rather, as in a lot of cases, already an ingrained part of that landscape – is palpable and sets a shiver crawling across your skin.

Although a slow-burn, this is a very precise and well-crafted book. There isn’t an ounce of spare flesh to be found. The prose is neither indulgent nor workmanlike. It has that evocative, tactile tone of a masterful storyteller, to the point that you forget you’re reading a book. Take this passage, where a young John is out amongst nature; Hurley gives us all these wonderful bright details, lending his own style of imagery to the scene:

“Things fled as I slithered down through the dry mud. Birds dissolved into the undergrowth and the eel that lay curled up like a question mark just under the surface of the water shivered aware in a ring of ripples. Nothing wanted to stay, not the damselflies or the dippers, or the kingfisher that unearthed itself from the dark, rooty banks on the other side and skimmed away with the current, burning a blue stripe in the air.”

I could read that over and over, and still find something new to smile about every time.

It’s almost a cliché at this point, but the setting here is as much a character as the people inhabiting it. The terrain and the weather shape the characters’ lives in ways both mundane and profound.

Just as the landscape shapes the characters, so does the past. It’s always needling into the present, informing and shaping it, pricking it with unease. The Gaffer’s aphorisms or lessons punctuate the story so that even in death we’re not without him. His presence underpins John’s narration, as well as his thoughts and feelings about the farm and his obligations to it.

The characters – even the fleeting, incidental ones – are never anything less than startlingly real; crafted with a crispness that puts Hurley’s skills as a writer on full display. The characters here are very traditional, which can really grate sometimes with their staunch religious beliefs, and their “he’s a pouf” and “don’t be a sissy” attitudes. They’re hardscrabble people with proudly calloused hands and a get-shit-done attitude. On the farm, work trumps everything, overcomes everything. Loss, disaster, even the Devil comes second to the necessities of farm life. Everything carries on, through death, weather, hardship, and the Devil’s sneaking tricks.

As we meander through this glacial story of rural family history and ritual set against the rugged English countryside, something a little insidious starts to creep into John’s tone. In his head, this is not just a visit but the start of something more permanent. Despite Kat’s objections, it’s his firm belief that they’ll soon settle down on the farm, that they’ll abandon their urban lives and jobs for this far simpler and harsher one maintaining the family farm.

John’s quiet but unwavering insistence that this is less a choice than a familial obligation is unsettling, but given the retrospective nature of the narrative, also sadly inevitable. This obsession with the legacy of obligation Kat inherits by dint of starting a family with John really alienates him from the reader – or this reader, anyway. As Kat becomes increasingly unsettled – and, to be honest, me with her – John’s lack of sympathy is stark in its absence. Everything’s a “useful lesson” for Kat or something that she’ll become accustomed to and appreciate, no matter how uncomfortable or out of place she feels. That we know she does come around and that they raise their first child on the farm doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable and somewhat heartbreaking, this woman caught in the web of a family’s hardscrabble (although not unhappy) way of life.

Kat’s the outsider here, and the reader’s way in to the story. She’s uncomfortable as I was with some of the family’s odd traditions and practices, as well as their occasional bluntness towards her. And when the horror element does edge its fingers around the doorframe, it’s Kat who reacts the most to it, her burgeoning sense of dislocation one that I vehemently shared.

As with The Loney, I did find myself wishing for a little more of the horror, or some culmination of the supernatural, but Hurley doesn’t work that way whether I like it or not. Devil’s Day is more about the people and the place, their past and present and inevitable future, than it is the overtly supernatural. It’s ultimately about the lengths people will go to protect not just their traditions but their family livelihood, their way of life.

Nothing here, from the characters to the harsh terrain to the ambiguity of certain events, is meant to be any shade of comfortable; this is a challenging book, but a riveting, beautifully crafted one. It reinforces what The Loney first showed us: that Andrew Michael Hurley is a unique and gifted writer, whose work I will continue to eagerly devour.

 

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“Some people change the world.” – The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson (REVIEW)

Vellitt-Boe

Disclaimer: prepare yourself for some heart-on-the-sleeve gushing.

HP Lovecraft, arguable big daddy of one vein of weird fiction, is known for a lot of things – unfettered racism and a discernible lack of female characters among them – but sheer breathtaking magic that warms the heart and gets it racing at the same time isn’t exactly one of them. With The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson takes Lovecraft’s Dreamland setting and reinvents it with so much skill that I could genuinely, and without a sliver of hyperbole, cry.

Especially in light of recent dramas directed at the weird fiction community, there’s a certain amount of baggage that comes with expanding – and especially subverting – Lovecraft’s universe. Personally, I’m all for it. First, old HP’s flaws and prejudices can’t just be ignored, and they can still be addressed while appreciating the more positive elements of his work. And second, the very act of recalibrating Lovecraft’s seminal universe with a more diverse and inclusive world in mind has given us some absolute gems over the past few years, including but not limited to Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (which I reviewed here), and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. What Ruff and LaValle’s works did for African American characters in a Lovecraftian universe, Johnson’s does for strong female characters.

Set in the Dreamlands introduced in Lovecraft’s short story, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Johnson’s busy novella follows Professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at the Ulthar Women’s College. After Clarie Jurat, a student and the daughter of one of the university’s trustees, runs away with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt is tasked with retrieving her, on a journey that will span the depths and heights of the Dreamlands in all their magical and treacherous variety.

To be honest, it’s been a while since I read Kadath, or any of Lovecraft’s other Dreamlands-set stories, so my memory of such wasn’t exactly fresh when I dove into Johnson’s novella. Thankfully, prior knowledge or context is far from necessary; there are some fun references to Lovecraft’s original stories here, but both die-hard fans and those to whom names like Randolph Carter and the Plateau of Leng are utterly unfamiliar will enjoy this story just as much.

Setting the bulk of the novella in the Dreamlands themselves allows Johnson to give it a fresh flavour while maintaining most of Lovecraft’s established geography and mythos. But these never impinge on or shape the story Johnson is trying to tell. The narrative’s borders do expand as we follow Vellitt Boe’s perilous journey, but despite the sense of growing danger and the bitter scheming of elder gods, her quest keeps all those unspeakable, madness-inducing elements in the peripheries.

Vellitt Boe’s 55-year-old female protagonist provides a unique and utterly engaging perspective; in her younger days she was a fervent adventurer, trekking across most of the Dreamlands, coming face to face with danger and wonder both. As an older woman engaged with retrieving one of her students, she might be a little less physically up to scratch, but she’s just as capable and much wiser than her more free-wheeling younger self as she retraces some of her earlier footsteps. Her age works on both a practical level and a philosophical one, giving her the tools and agency to navigate the dangers, monstrous or human, that she encounters on her journey.

To say this is a book about female empowerment is too reductive. It absolutely is a book about female empowerment, and Johnson addresses the failings of Lovecraft’s original Dream-Quest in ways both direct and subtle, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of it.

There’s a freshness to Vellitt Boe’s journey, a kind of fragrance that places it somewhere between a fairy tale and a fantasy adventure. It moves at a wonderful pace and fits in a lot for its short length. It’s also a fun, and – unlike old HP’s work – heart-warming story. All of this sets Johnson’s book apart from Lovecraft’s work, despite the shared setting and mythology. There’s a distinct lack of horror or sense of cosmic indifference – at least in the usual Lovecraftian sense – and as much as I enjoy those things in a lot of fiction, Johnson’s choice to remove her work from that was an inspired decision. It stills thrills and terrifies often, but without the sense of inescapable doom that hounds Lovecraft’s thinly-drawn characters.

Instead we get a book that celebrates the depth of human perseverance, wit, and experience, and the things we carry with us as we age.

Ultimately, there aren’t enough adjectives in the world to properly encapsulate how I feel about this book. It’s one of my favourite books of the year, if not decade, and it has one of the most resonant and beautiful and thrilling endings to a story I think I’ve ever read. What it ends up being about is something so far removed from Lovecraft’s original stories that it renders its inspiration almost unrecognisable, because for all its magic and wonder, for all its deft fantastical elements and beautiful dream-logic, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is about people, in all their fallible and unique incarnations.

As one character says to the protagonist: “Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.” Vellitt Boe might be the latter, but with her writing, Kij Johnson is undoubtedly the former.

 

Taken the Crazy Train – John Claude Smith’s The Wilderness Within

Nobody does an acid trip of a story quite like John Claude Smith. What I’ve read of his short fiction is dazzling, and weird, and dazzlingly weird. His first novel, Riding the Centipede (which I reviewed here a while back), was a marvellous debut, a neon-lit, hallucinatory nightmare of manic proportions. Smith’s writing thus far feels like the perfect distillation of gonzo horror fiction, a combination of great character beats, off-the-wall insanity, and an enormous bit of fun.

His newly released second novel, The Wilderness Within, is less of a gut-punch – to begin with, at least. it opens with protagonist Derek Gray visiting his long-time friend, Frank Harlan Marshall, who lives on the edge of a big old creepy forest with only one neighbour in sight.

This is a book exclusively about artistic types, and delves deeply into, among other things, the minutiae of the creative process. Derek and Frank are both very successful horror writers. Frank, whose work is much more bleak and brutal than his friend’s, is also a bit more successful, with books on the bestseller lists and blockbuster film adaptations earning him riches and a celebrity status that seems much scarcer for writers these days, especially of horror.

Anyway, the two catch up, shooting the shit and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. At some point, their comedian and actor friend, “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, turns up, and Derek’s sense of reality starts to skew. Smith skilfully portrays the interactions between the three friends as insecurities, old feuds and nostalgia rise to the surface.

Derek also strikes up a friendship/flirtation with Frank’s only neighbour, the singer known as Alethea. With her interest in philosophy and metaphysics, her looks and wit and charm and intelligence, Alethea comes across as more male fantasy than rounded character, at least to begin with. At the core of the novel’s first half is Derek’s growing connection and interaction with Alethea; their conversations about philosophy, humanity and nature – and, importantly, humanity’s relationship with nature – lay the foundations for the thematic direction Wilderness takes.

From here, once dynamics and core relationships have been established, the weirdness starts to creep in. Some characters are not what they seem, and maybe Derek’s conception of reality isn’t, either. These questions keep popping up at various points throughout the book, which often has the quality of a dream or drug-trip. Unfortunately for the characters, it’s not all in their heads, but that doesn’t mean that what’s in their heads is harmless.

Where Riding the Centipede was a fairly fast-paced novel that juggled a number of intersecting – and often colliding – character arcs, The Wilderness Within is much more of a character piece, with its introspective first-person narration and its exploration of its protagonist’s primary relationships. There’s still a copious spray of weirdness, especially in the second half, but by the very nature of the story, this plays off and is shaped by the humanity at the heart of the novel.

In a lot of ways The Wilderness Within is a book about the past; Derek is constantly rubbing the present thin enough that it beads through, but the foundation of Derek and Frank’s friendship, their years of adventure and success, is mostly kept out of the way. It looms in the reader’s peripheries, crouching behind the presently unfolding madness, more a concealed framework than an overt influence.

What Smith does very well is craft this world of artists and situate it firmly in our reality; it really feels like his characters and their work – books, films, music – exist within our pop culture bubble, and as I read about them it was almost disheartening not to be able to go and consume some of it.

There are some sharp, gorgeous observations here too, though. One character is “noticeably winding down”, and Derek observes that “it reminded me of the nervous deceleration of a music box, the end creeping up to sweep it into silence.”

On the whole the novel has the grainy feel of horror made popular in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s more than a whiff of Clive Barker in there, but also some unexpected flavours. The first few chapters are reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, with Derek’s exhaustive descriptions of (in this case fictional) bands.

This influence carries through into the feel of the protagonist, too. He reminded me in a less sleazy way of one of Ellis’ characters, a dysfunctional world-weary guy cutting through life, telling his stories but not really knee-deep in any of them; he has a history and a life but he’s strangely removed from his past despite being so informed by it. I could never quite connect to Derek, never bridge that gap between the fiction and the human, despite the admirable world- and character-building chops Smith clearly demonstrates here. Derek talks about his emotions, but he never really seems to feel them, and subsequently neither did I. This doesn’t mean the novel isn’t engaging – it absolutely is – but I felt like more of an audience member than a participant.

Smith writes with gusto and honesty, the weirdness flaring across the page. The story jumps between this great pulpy weirdness reminiscent of Barker, King (especially The Shining) and a little Campbell, and the more overt philosophising that manifests as conversations between characters (most prevalently, Derek and Alethea). This is fine, but would have worked a lot better in certain parts if it wasn’t quite so meticulously explained. Philosophy as exposition, as character-building conversation is hard to pull off at the best of times, more so when it’s being juggled with a bunch of other big ideas and set pieces. It mostly works here, but I feel like some fat-trimming, some pushing down of these ideas into the story’s subtext might have served its flow much better. This is especially evident during some of the more action-centric scenes, in which characters will have an aside with each other while fleeing something or engaged in serious conflict. This breaks the rhythm of the action and, more importantly, the tension such action evokes.

The ideas themselves, however, are all very engaging, even if the execution falters at times. This is a novel packed with ideas. Smith’s observations about the nature of sounds are fascinating, as are the existential musings on nature and our relationship with it; not only its alien allure, its otherness, but the idea that we shape nature by our perception of it, and it shapes us in turn, is carried through to its logical conclusion.

Smith is at his best when the shit hits the fan and things get really weird. You can feel him having fun with scenes and characters, his prose revelling in grotesque turns of phrase. Everything becomes tactile and delicious as he puts his characters through all colours of hell. The action, when he kicks into full gear, is written with a kind of joy and flair for juggling; all these elements stacked and tumbling around each other in a whirl of chaos, before Smith catches them momentarily, and then back up into the air they go.

There’s a cartoonish, almost slapstick tone at times that feels both intentional and familiar after Smith’s psychedelic debut. In a book like Centipede, this really works to its advantage. In Wilderness this is effective for the most part, but with a narrative more grounded between reality and what seems to be a more dreamlike, philosophical breed of horror, this can sometimes blunt the tension, making comic what should be taut and terrifying.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that this may be the point. That line between horror and comedy, encapsulated nowhere more perfectly than in Dizzy Izzy’s character and his various incarnations/inspirations, is straddled so violently that the two often converge. There’s something hysterical about the later, more outlandish scenes that, had they not been blackly funny, would actually have fallen flat.

The final reveal(s), as telegraphed to an extent by the themes laid out from the beginning, is both brilliant and disturbing and a little reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s latest controversial offering, mother! (which I reviewed recently). There’s something beneath the skin of this revelation that’s more than a little unpleasant in its almost masturbatory exploration of the ego and/of the artist. It explains some of the misgivings I had about earlier scenes and characters, but within the story, this does nobody any favours. To this extent, there was no character I really rooted for here, although I suspect that might be Smith’s intention. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist in the same way I can’t relate to – again – a Bret Easton Ellis character, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaging or fun to read.

This is a relatively slim novel, but it feels like a big, busy one. I admire Smith’s ambition and especially his ability to corral humour, horror and pathos together into scenes. His tone and his style, after Riding the Centipede and The Wilderness Within, is unique and engaging and already quite recognisable. More than that, it’s a style I recommend you get acquainted with.

 

 

 

mother! (Film Review)

Another year, another divisive Darren Aronofsky film. The fervour that critics get into over his work, either to condemn or praise, is almost exhausting, if only because it’s the expected reaction at this point. But I guess that’s better than indifference, which, exceptions aside, is how I’ve feel about the majority of what I’ve seen in the cinema lately: bland, forgettable stories presented/edited in a bland, forgettable way. An unpleasant percentage of this year’s cinematic output – off the top of my head, The Dark Tower, Flatliners, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (the last of which I’m extremely sad to have to put on this list) – has been unforgivably dull.

Just to be clear, this is not me being a film snob. I’ll happily forgive a film for not being overly original if it at least has something going for it, some visual or narrative flare, an interesting character/performance – just something to tell me that someone on some level of the production really cared about it.

But I’ll get to my point. Love or hate them, you can’t say Aronofsky’s films don’t have some sort of visual or narrative flare, and you definitely can’t say that anyone involved with them is phoning it in.

For the most part, I’m a big fan of his films. Requiem for a Dream is as harrowing and inventive as Clint Mansell’s listen-on-endless-repeat score, not to mention featuring a Jared Leto before he become the method-acting wanker we know today. The Fountain – with another, arguably even better, Mansell score – is an ambitious, beautiful sci-fi love story that embraces its own bold weirdness and works all the better because of it. Black Swan is a crisp, creepy psychological horror, in part a love letter to the Giallo horror films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Noah is a batshit crazy, visually orgasmic take on the famous Biblical story, complete with stone angels and two insane performances from Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone.

Aronofsky’s latest, mother!, its lowercase title punctuated with an exclamation mark, is both as hysterical and annoying as said title suggests. I liked it though, or I think I did. I definitely liked parts of it. I didn’t not like it, at least?

It’s incredibly ambitious, and goes in a direction you don’t at first suspect. Personally I think it’s one of his most problematic films, but also one of his most interesting. I still find myself thinking about it even a couple of weeks after watching it, my head buzzing with its escalating weirdness, and the ideas it throws around like blood in a slaughterhouse.

When I saw the film’s trailer (which you can watch here), I thought it was a work of art in itself, a sharp, scratchy rhythm of image, sound and text that disturbs and delights all at once. On one hand it encapsulates the tone of the film itself, but on the other it doesn’t come close to revealing what it’s really about. (Not that I’m complaining. In these days of trailers giving away every damn plot point, this can only be a good thing.) What looks like a straightforward horror film is actually something much more, and much weirder.

The basic plot of mother! follows Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed woman (referred to as Her, or Mother in the credits) living in a newly refurbished house in what looks like the tranquil middle of nowhere with Javier Bardem’s Him, a poet struggling with writer’s block. Soon, the couple’s idyll is disturbed by the arrival of Ed Harris and later his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer (Man and Woman, respectively), whose extended stay and strange behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing for Lawrence’s character. To say that the situation escalates from there would be a massive understatement.

This is Aronofsky’s first film that hasn’t featured a music score from his go-to composer, Clint Mansell. I’ve said that I’m a big fan of their work together, so I found this a little disappointing. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – whose work on Sicario and Arrival is incredible – is credited as the “sound and music consultant”. In lieu of a traditional score, then, the film employs a creeping, creaking soundscape that follows and circles and stalks Jennifer Lawrence through the house, from room to room and from danger to danger.

Along with the intimate over-the-shoulder camera-work, this makes for an unsettling experience. I don’t know if this film is really all that enjoyable or entertaining in the strictest sense, but it’s not really supposed to be. Everything here – the sound design, the cinematography, the performances, the disturbing escalation of events – is all very effective in making the viewer uncomfortable even as they remain fascinated.

For the first half, anyway. Before the proverbial shit hits the fan, mother! plays out like a very well made psychological thriller with a fantastic hallucinatory edge. I felt as uncomfortable, bewildered and claustrophobic as Lawrence’s protagonist seems too. These strange, creepy people in her house, the escalating sense of terror that soon becomes literal and immediate. One brilliant scene involving a secret door in the basement made me think that the film was moving towards the occult, but the direction it takes from here is very different.

After this, when the chaos really kicks in, the film loses some of its flare and momentum. Inside the house – a setting we never leave – crazy piles upon crazy in an ugly, almost annoying way. A few scenes involving soldiers seem a bit too ridiculous and don’t really gel with the previously established atmosphere. Just when you think events can’t go any further, they do, and while this does culminate in a brutal, gorgeous ending, I can’t help but feel a little let down by some of the insanity that came before. I like what Aronofsky does with the story, but I feel like he could have executed it in a less screechy, handheld way. Something with a bit more visual intensity would have worked much better before that incredible ending, and might have made the film’s symbolism a bit more digestible.

For me, that symbolism is one of mother!’s downfalls. Not the symbolism itself, maybe, but the way it’s shoved in the audience’s face, the glaringly literal obviousness of it. There are more than a few Biblical references in there; after a while the film’s practically teeming with them. Some work, while others are very on-the-nose.

It’s not that I have a problem with what mother! is about, but in a way that seems to be all it’s really about. The allegory, the metaphors and symbolism, that’s essentially the film. The surface is the subtext, and Aronofsky seems so intent on conveying this, he’s forgotten to give us something more than that.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of the film is how gleefully nasty it is in its treatment of Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist, effectively a muse for Javier Bardem’s creatively blocked poet. There’s no descent from human to monster for Bardem here; from the opening shots he’s never a sympathetic or even very complex character. The same could be said for every “character” here, Lawrence included. The performances are all searing and powerful to watch, but some have more of a focus than others. Ed Harris and Domhnall Gleeson are criminally underutilised, although Stephen McHattie does a great job with a creepy extended cameo.

But beyond the roles everyone plays, the only humanity on show here is its ugly, messy, chaotic side. Without giving too much away, though, this seems to be the point, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Again, everything’s symbolic, but whether these elements stand up on their own is another question. I just don’t know if it’s a question that anyone needs to bother asking, let alone answering.

I’m sure there are other interpretations to be gleaned from mother!, and of course not everyone will come to the same conclusions. I’m not even sure I can truly decide how I feel about this film. Some of the threads it toys with in terms of Bardem’s struggle with artistic expression, the treatment of Lawrence’s character, and the literal events playing out onscreen are pretty disturbing, but I keep swinging between feeling a little bit angry and disgusted about this, and wondering if maybe it works for exactly that reason.

Whatever I ultimately think of it, though, at least I do actually think of it, which is something to be thankful for in this year’s dribble of forgettable Hollywood sewage.

But that doesn’t make mother! – or its annoyingly punctuated title – any less irritating, fascinating, disappointing and thought-provoking.

Alien: Covenant (Film Review)

Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus may be a big hot mess, but it has its moments, and I personally enjoyed it on a number of levels despite the overall disappointment.

Not only does Scott’s follow up, Alien: Covenant, have the expectations of the main franchise riding on its distinctly bowed shoulders, it needs to learn its lesson from Prometheus (other than “Don’t fucking hire John Spaihts to write your screenplay”), while providing a decent – and coherent, and scary, and original – continuation of both.

No pressure, then.

I enjoyed this one, mostly. Covenant is a decent addition to the franchise, and it’s a lot neater than Prometheus, which, despite some excellent creature design and great visuals (generally a given for Ridley), featured a shitstorm of dunderhead characters wandering blindly through what was a largely incoherent narrative.

Set ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows the titular colony ship on its seven-year journey to distance planet Origae-6, loaded up with two thousand colonists and a thousand human embryos in stasis. After a neutrino flare damages the ship, waking up the crew and immolating James Franco’s captain Branson (in the briefest of cameos), they receive a distress call from a lush, potentially habitable planet nobody’s noticed before. Figuring that they might be able to settle here instead of their heavily vetted and scanned and predetermined Origae-6, the crew changes course. Needless to say, the shit is on a collision course with the fan.

Covenant has a great cast, although only a handful of their characters are fleshed out enough for us to care whether they live or die; the rest are simply food for the monsters. Michael Fassbender, both reprising his role as Prometheus’ sociopathic synthetic, David, as well as the Covenant’s newer model, Walter, is the standout here, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. His David is a complex and impressive villain, and far more skincrawling than the bio-horrors picking off the rest of the cast.

As Daniels, Katherine Waterston is the Ripley stand-in and gives a great performance, but her character doesn’t have an enormous amount to do beyond the first act’s character building, and later dispatching of acid-blooded threats.

Billy Crudup’s Oram is one of the more interesting characters, a man of faith forced to take on the role of captain after Branson’s death. His clashes with the rest of the crew and his uncertainties in the face of adversity make him fallible and a little sympathetic. Eventually though, like a lot of the characters in Covenant, his decisions and choices make little sense for his character and fall into the same ballpark as the doofuses who can only run in straight lines, a la Prometheus.

Beyond this, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo are all good, but their talents are somewhat wasted with underwritten characters or early deaths. The fact that the crew is made up entirely of couples makes for some interesting and fresh dynamics, if only so they’ll be more distraught every time somebody is eviscerated.

Jed Kurzel’s score is effective and thrilling, although it seems to hark back a little too often to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic work from 1979’s original Alien. It also doesn’t have quite the same epic feel as Marc Streitenfeld and Harry Gregson-Williams’ work on Prometheus. Having said that, it works beautifully here with Kurzel’s trademark moody ambience, and really stands out in some scenes.

For all its problems, Prometheus was at least ambitious in terms of its mythology building, its monsters, and its refusal to recycle the xenomorphs. That Scott has “listened to the fans” and included the traditional xenomorphs in Covenant is actually a bit of a letdown. The xenomorphs’ creation story is interesting and creepy, but the creatures themselves just aren’t that scary anymore. They’re relegated to a few third act set pieces that feel shoehorned into the story for the sake of being able to call this an Alien film. The decision to include the xenomorphs also short-changes the far more unsettling Neomorphs – pale, lanky prototypes that could easily have carried the film if only Scott and the screenwriters had had the faith to let them.

It takes a while for the horror to kick in, and while the film’s attempt to take its time building characters is admirable, this throws off the overall structure, squashing much of its action into the second half. This probably could have been fixed if the film was a little longer, or its third act wasn’t so average, especially after the dark heights of the second act. This section, set largely in some imposing ruins and dominated by some seriously creepy Fassbender on Fassbender interactions, saves the movie. Here it delves into some dark themes and philosophical questions, like the idea of humanity undone by its own drive to evolve and advance. This is aided by screenwriter John Logan’s proclivity for quoting classic works of literature and poetry (no surprises from the man who brought us the pulp horror series, Penny Dreadful). It’s also the closest Covenant comes to being genuinely scary, with some wonderful set pieces and scenes of smaller-scale violence, plus a flashback that’s both beautiful and terrifying.

Unfortunately, all this good work dissolves into predictable mediocrity as the characters return to the ship for the final act, featuring lazy off-screen deaths and what is by now a severely flogged dead horse for the franchise: ejecting the monster into space. There’s also a “twist” that’s ruined by being painfully, stupidly obvious from the moment it’s hinted at earlier in the film. On the other hand, it makes for a great ending, and leaves me hopeful for Scott’s planned third prequel film.

Ultimately Alien: Covenant could have been a lot better, could have delivered on its promise of a dark sci-fi horror epic that terrifies as much for its existentialism as for its monsters. What we got was far from shit, and at the very least it’s one of the best looking films of the year, but Covenant can’t seem to decide which side of the Prometheus/Alien fence it wants to sit on, resulting in a clumsy hybrid that ends up playing it far too safe. There are some great moments in there, and I honestly enjoyed it much more than it seems; it just needs more polish and coherence.

Scott’s apparently planning to conclude this prequel trilogy in the next few years. Third time lucky, fingers crossed?

The Void (Film Review)

void

When I first saw the incredible trailer and luscious promotional artwork for Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s 80’s horror throwback The Void, my expectations were set dangerously high. And why shouldn’t they have been? Not only did it look fantastic, but the past few years have been inundated with some astonishing and original horror films – The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, Get Out, Bone Tomahawk – and this trend doesn’t look like it’s going to dry up anytime soon. Sure, there are some stinkers out there too, but there was no reason to believe that The Void might fall in with that crowd.

I won’t go into any detail about the plot, since there really isn’t that much of one anyway, beyond the basic scenario of a group of characters trapped in a hospital, assailed from outside by white-robed cultists and from inside by gelatinous horrors and a madman with a propensity for self-mutilation.

The Void isn’t exactly a bad film, but for me the disappointment started to soak through as its 90-minute run time dragged on. Its most glaring problem is that it just isn’t very original. With its aesthetic and its – admittedly quite good – practical creature effects, it wears its influences on its sleeve. The problem with this is that I was regularly reminded of all the far superior horror films it’s clearly been inspired by: John Carpenter’s The Thing and Prince of Darkness, Event Horizon, The Beyond.

The thing with homage-style films is that they can be great fun even if they don’t end up subverting the thing they’re emulating. Take Adam Wingard’s 2014 film The Guest, a brilliant 80’s style retro action thriller/slasher. It works so well not simply because it has a great script and is well made, but because it’s fun. Unfortunately, fun isn’t a word I’d use to describe The Void.

It has all the components of a potentially mind-blowing horror film – murderous cults, gelatinous creatures, body horror, monstrous pregnancies, alternate dimensions – but it never really does anything interesting with them, and it never seems to work on its own merits. Everything here feels too subdued, like it’s too afraid to be its own film. It’s not as weird as it could be, not as violent, not as moving or atmospheric or even cosmic. Again, the practical effects are admirable, but the creature design is dull, the scene set-up pedestrian, and the constantly flickering lights infuriating. None of the elements seemed to come together for me, or not enough to make a coherent, flowing story. The script is severely lacking in both direction and three-dimensional characters, and the acting is wooden at best. The human villain is a one-note nutjob with a flimsy, bordering-on-ludicrous motivation that only gels with his actions on the most superficial “let’s-try-this-because-it’s-gross” level. Even the score is barely noticeable, and that was the one area they at least could have let rip with the Carpenter worship.

I think the problem here is that the directors seem like they’re trying to build a mythology for their film, with the triangle motifs and the multidimensional elements – the hallucinatory shots of desolate landscapes, galaxies and pulsing flesh are beautiful, and by far the best part of The Void – but they end up cramming in a whole bunch of things that don’t necessarily work in and of themselves. Internal logic is nowhere to be found. There’s no rhythm or harmony to the story or its characters, which are forced to co-exist in a world that has a lot of potential, but ultimately isn’t very believable or engaging.

It’s possible I’m being too harsh on this because I was so excited to see it, and by the look of a lot of reviews it’s been receiving, I expect most people to disagree with me, but with the horror genre experiencing a renaissance of gripping, original work that isn’t just limited to film, this kind of messy pastiche of beloved influences just isn’t good enough.

By the end of The Void, it became disappointingly apparent that this is one of those cases where the promotional material ends up being far better than the film itself.

Racism, Black Magic & Transformation: Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom

[Contains some spoilers.]

For all his influence on weird fiction, his insinuation into pop culture and his insemination of so much fictional homage (of varying degrees of quality), it’s fairly well known by now that HP Lovecraft was also a racist piece of shit, an unfortunate quality that also shines through in much of his fiction. This is apparent not just in his portrayal of squirming, unspeakable monsters, but pretty much any description of non-Aryan characters, although ‘characters’ might be overstating it. Rancorous descriptions abound of the “hatefully negroid”, “unclassified slant-eyed folk”, and the “blackest and most vicious criminals”, and all this in just one story.

Here’s the thing though: most people remotely familiar with old HP’s work have digested these vile attributes as part of his problematic legacy, either disavowing him entirely or at least acknowledging the inherent problems with the man and his work; the only arseholes who don’t accept it are probably the same kind of people who are still saying, “Yeah, but her emails…”

Personally, Lovecraft will always be one of my major early influences, but both as a writer and a reader it’s essential to evolve, not only in general, but particularly in cases like this, lest one be caught up in Cthulhu’s white supremacist tentacles for untold aeons. That’s not to say that you can’t – or that I don’t – still enjoy a bit of Nyarlathotep or Shub-Niggurath goodness, because you can – and I do – but ignoring or excusing Lovecraft’s attitudes as a natural product of its time is not only lazy, but implicitly racist in its own way too. Recognising and calling out someone’s bigotry, no matter how long dead he is, doesn’t entirely negate an appreciation of the guy’s work or deny the scope of his influence on an entire genre, but it does acknowledge the issue with blindly idolising a writer whose racism wasn’t the only problem with his fiction.

Either way, contemporary weird literature has an obligation to move past and subvert the distasteful elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, at the very least. That there’s still so much Lovecraft-inspired fiction being produced really gives writers the opportunity to actively address HP’s bigotry, to tackle it head-on and present a Mythos story from the point of view of one of those minorities previously relegated to a “babel of sound and filth”. Which is exactly what Victor LaValle has done with The Ballad of Black Tom, essentially a remake of one of Lovecraft’s more racially inflamed stories, “The Horror at Red Hook”.

The original story deals with the occult underbelly of, you guessed it, Red Hook in Brooklyn, and the involvement of the “queer, corpulent” recluse Robert Suydam in kidnappings, illegal immigration and clandestine rituals. It’s not exactly HP’s strongest work, and is dragged down to the point of ruin by its flagrant racism and stereotyping, but there are a few great moments in “Red Hook”, particularly the lurid, teeming descriptions of “night crypts [and] titan arcades, and those half-formed shapes of hell that strode gigantically in silence holding half-eaten things whose still surviving portions screamed for mercy or laughed with madness.” Really though, this is limited to a handful of fleeting scenes; even discounting the racism, the story is messy and more than a little dull.

For The Ballad of Black Tom, LaValle seems to take the parts he likes, omitting entirely the weird tangential wedding from HP’s original. His version of the story focuses on black Harlem resident and not-very-good musician, Charles Thomas Tester as he gets caught up in the occult. Although it’s not necessary to have read Lovecraft’s story prior to this, LaValle interweaves characters and elements from the original to the extent that some knowledge of “The Horror at Red Hook” would benefit the reader, if only to be able to say “Oh, that’s cool, I see what he did there.”

The importance of LaValle’s novella cannot be understated, not just in terms of its response to the problematic ways of Lovecraft and his fiction, but especially in today’s climate of inclement ignorance and racial hatred. This is a great book in that it’s not simply playful or original in its subversion of Lovecraft’s fiction and philosophy, but that it digs deep. There are layers here waiting to be unpeeled, not the least of which is an excellent, subtle commentary on Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentist philosophy. Tester notes at one point that a “fear of cosmic indifference suddenly seemed comical, or downright naïve”, which is a great way of examining the implications of the author’s supposed indifference relative to his racist views. This also brings to light Lovecraft’s often deliberately flimsy characterisation; with Tester, we get not only an interesting and unique character, but through him and the context of his race and circumstances, an empathetic one. The dynamic LaValle creates in rewriting a Lovecraftian story with a black character gives the mythos a fresh coat of paint with his different perspective and experience of the world, but it’s also infinitely more engaging in that we’re following a real, three-dimensional person rather than a character designed to simply convey the plot. Gone is the passive observer. Tester’s treatment – and subsequently the treatment of black people in general at that particular time and place – moves the reader far more than the realisation of humanity’s insignificance, a realisation that by this point isn’t all that groundbreaking. After all, “what was indifference compared to malice?”

Everything I’m saying here probably makes it sound a lot heavier than it actually is. Black Tom does tackle some serious issues, but LaValle is never heavy-handed in his execution. That he’s managed to wrap his poignant and subversive commentary on Lovecraft’s racism in a work of fiction that’s thrilling and electric and just plain fun is an enormous feat.

Where Black Tom falls flat for me, however, is in its inclusion of Lovecraft’s titular Mythos deity, Cthulhu. The original story had no overt connection to the tentacled beastie, nor any other of his squirming brethren, although its use of cults and monsters and eldritch dimensions still places it firmly within that universe. What I liked about “Red Hook” was the ambiguity and relative freshness of some of its horrors, particularly the “naked phosphorescent thing” that emerges from an otherworldly lake towards story’s end. Unfortunately this is one of the elements that LaValle decided to cut, replacing it with the more recognisable Cthulhu, which in some ways seems like a bit of a safer route, and ultimately a less engaging one.

About halfway through, the narrative switches from looking over Tester’s shoulder, to the detective Malone’s, Lovecraft’s equivalent of a mostly useless protagonist in the original. Although this tactic adds to the suspense and mystery regarding Tester’s actions and motivations, it definitely feels like the weaker section of the narrative after the tour de force of Tester’s opening. LaValle does explore the matter-of-fact racism expressed by Malone and company, but aside from his sensitivity to the supernatural, Malone is cardboard compared to Tester.

These flaws aren’t deal-breakers though, and in the end The Ballad of Black Tom is an engaging, original work that does the genre a service in its subversion of the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. It marks an important milestone in Lovecraft’s contentious legacy, and it’s a bloody great read, too.