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Ghost Is As Irreverent As Ever: He Is

The embosed word "Ghost" with upside down cross for a "T" hovers above as in previous videos, shining in gold.
Opening title to Ghost’s latest music video, “He Is”

Ghost Takes it to the Next Level

Ghost is back to show their friends, fans, and enemies that there is no drama that can stop this dynamic band from doing what they do best: attempt to topple the establishment and open the eyes of the blind sheep that follow the established order. Ghost reveals that they are as steadfast and irreverent as ever with this one! At last, a long-awaited music video has arrived to accompany the song featured on Ghost’s third full-length studio album, Meliora, the controversial song that Ghost performed at the Grammis to the chagrine of everyone in attendance, “He Is”.

“He Is”

“He Is” has a turbulent existence. It was languishing in demo for a while, but was finally written for Meliora in tribute to the lead singer of The Devil’s Blood, Selim Lemouchi, a close friend of each member of Ghost, who sadly took his own life in March of 2014 at the age of 33.   A Nameless Ghoul speaking on behalf of the band to Loudwire said that there were various personal meanings to the song, but ultimately it’s about “an expression of faith to “the great beyond””.

Though the song has a deep meaning that those outside of Ghost’s immediate circle may never understand, clearly “He Is” embraces some kind of faith. Papa Emeritus III returns in all of his romantic glory, a glory he has spent the last three years cultivating in everything from the way he makes enigmatic eye contact with those in the front row (I was so lucky to be drawn into those mismatched eyes myself), his more than sexual gestures, the way he will take a random girl fan’s hand and holds it (why not me, Papa!), and the rekindled inclusion of “Monstrance Clock” at the end of every set.

Papa Emeritus III reclines in a dazzling suit of white and gold, holding a white rose close to his nose. He glances up, seemingly surprised to see us here.
Papa Emeritus is ready to receive you in the opening of Ghost’s latest music video, “He Is”

Though Ghost and Papa Emeritus have always been seductive, Meliora took that concept to the next level. Meliora was meant to be listened to as a full service, with each song representing a section of a mass or church service itself. There are processionals, recessionals, hymns, and worship songs. “He Is” on the outside, is a worship song. It moves slowly, seductively, inclusive of all, and offering comfort and salvation inside a dark faith that is both ironic and twisted. The video, released Thursday morning at 11:59 PM, illustrates it far more clearly. Though Ghost’s performance of the song at the Grammis presented him in papal regalia, Papa’s role in “He Is” is far different than even his stage performances.

Join Him: Ghost and Satire

Like Ghost’s previous single, “Cirice”, heralding the album’s debut in 2015, “He Is” is set in yet another worship scenario. In one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever seen from this band, Papa first embraces the small children, hinting at what is to come. The children run to embrace him in what can only be described as cherubim baptism robes. They know him. They trust him. They love him unconditionally. Zev Deans, the director for “He Is”, drew on a statue of Michael Jackson as inspiration for Papa’s outfit for this video.

Papa, on a black background, is flanked by a girl and a boy, hugging either of his legs. He is dressed in a white coat and suit and spreads his arms wide to embrace them.
Papa Emeritus III embraces the youngest of his flock. I wish those were my children.

This is also what makes my following remarks so disturbing.

Papa greets his congregation in a white suit emblazoned with gold buttons and aviator sunglasses in a blindingly bright church under stained glass. I’m not kidding about the blinding. Bright lights from behind make it almost impossible to look directly at him. Notice Papa’s outstretched arms, his palms turned up in the photo above. Papa is well-known (in all of his incarnations) for grandiose gestures both on stage and in videos. Though his gestures tend to make great theater, this one is clearly meant to be an imitation of Christ on the cross, as Christ has his hands turned out to be nailed to the wooden rails through his palms. Despite the obvious jab, I have never laughed harder at a Ghost video.

Papa Emeritus III eschews his black papal robes and tunic for a white suit jacket and aviator-framed sunglasses. He stands in his black and white skull makeup under stained glass, lit from behind by large lights. A choir stands behind him in bright pastel robes, singing the chorus.
Papa Emeritus III looking very Jim Jones in his white suit jacket and aviator sunglasses. Notice our evangelical pastor retains his makeup.

Hilarity aside, though (who doesn’t look at all of this and laugh?) perhaps what is most disturbing about this display is Papa is specifically portraying evangelical minsisters. The evangelical leader Jim Jones comes quickest to mind. He was the leader of the People’s Temple and later responsible for the mass suicide of 918 of his followers, 300 of which were children, in his self-titled city state of Jonestown in Guyana in South America, removed from American intervention and cut off from the outside to prevent Jones’ hold on his followers from slipping. Papa’s embrace of the children, then, is frightening as hell when you consider the magnitude of Jim Jones’ influence over his people, who were able to not only convince themselves to join God alongside Jones, but to believe in Jones so much, that they, to a man, decided to bring their children to meet God too. It is no surprise either, that Jones’ idea to take his congregation directly to God came as the United States government closed in on him to liberate his followers.

Jim Jones, the evangelical pastor turned cult leader, speaks to his congregation. Notice the white jacket and aviator sunglasses.
Jim Jones was the leader of the cult called the People’s Temple, and established a cult base in Guyana called Jonestown.

 

With this imagery, Ghost plays with both the seductive nature of Jones’ charisma and the seductive power Ghost, and Papa Emeritus (and arguably all celebrities, but especially evangelical ministers), have over their fans during a “ritual”. As the video progresses, Papa speaks to his congregation in escalating fervor and violence. His faithful beg to be presented to him. They fall on their knees before him and rejoice that he bestows his grace on them. He incites them to speaking in tongues, clearly a representation of of an evangelical Christian pastor.

Papa Emeritus III, dressed in similar fashion to Jim Jones, takes his place before a willing congretation, dramatically posed, with pink and purple difused lighting bathing the church in a wash of warmth and comfort, while the minister himself wears skull makeup.
Papa Emeritus addresses the congregation like an evangelical minister.

Fan interaction at a Ghost concert is paramount to their success, and Ghost is so far the only band to successfully make their fans a part of the overall performance. They openly take advantage of the seductive power of the performance and their fans’ willingness to partake in the act. As I mentioned earlier, Papa III has been known to wade out into his fans and grasp the hand of a lady of his choice, much the way Papa Jim Jones does in the video. In the video, a select few of the congregation are presented to Papa, whom he incites to some sort of violent reaction, though it’s open to speculation about what that reaction is to. At a Ghost ritual, or any metal concert, violent, sympathetic reaction is common. The crowd bangs heads, forms a circle pit, and depending on the show, otherwise descends into chaos. A Ghost ritual finds mostly devoted females (myself among them) clamoring to get closer to Papa. Notice Papa has a much more gentle touch with the women than he does with the men of this video. I’ll get to the significance of that in the next section.

The Sisters of Sin are another example of fan interaction, where two “nuns” with Ghost emblems wander down the front row and hand out the unholy sacrament and blood of Satan. I actually got to partake at their show in Austin in April of 2016. It’s wine and communion wafer, but the fact that Ghost as a concept espouses anti-Christian rhetoric through pro-Satanic “rituals” turns the entire idea of the Eucharist on it’s head, especially when accompanied with the song, “Body and Blood”, which, when performed is nothing short of irreverent. This draws a lot of criticism, as you can well imagine. Ghost’s purpose, though, is not to turn people into God-haters, but to point out how ridiculous the idea of the Eucharist is, how it operates only as a form of mass hysteria: it only works if everyone believes in it, ironizing the mob mentality it requires to be an active member of an organized religion. Unlike most Christian rhetoric that relies on the belief of the flock, Satanism emphasizes the development of the self, the individual, and Ghost has taken it upon themselves since their inception to open the eyes of their followers.

For a more in-depth look at the tradition of satire in Satanism, director Zev Deans has the director’s cut of the video and behind-the-scenes footage here.

Ghost As Sexual Awakening

I mentioned earlier that Papa Emeritus III pays particular attention to the ladies. Not that Papa has not always paid attention to the ladies. However, Papa III does not merely invite the sexually awakened to follow in his wake like Papa II:

Papa Emeritus II sits with a young female who is naked except for a pair of black underwear and a Ghost emblem. She has black stars censoring her breasts.
Papa Emeritus II from the music video “Year Zero” from second studio album, Infestissumam.

Papa III is by all accounts, “the one lascivious”. In “He Is” Papa III is responsible for the sexual awakening of his female followers. By the end of the video, he performs a strange baptism on all the girls who are sexually of age.

Papa Emeritus III and his female follower embrace in a brightly shining pond. She stares into Papa's eyes after receiving a sort of strange baptism. She emerges from the water soaking wet, shocked, with erect nipples and breasts plainly visble.
Papa Emeritus and a female follower, in bright pastels, complete the baptism ritual of awakening.

Each of the girls is dunked into the bright baptism pool, fully submerged. They go in dry and smiling, and they come up visibly shaken, shocked even, changed. Their breasts are clearly visible under their shifts. They stare at him in utter disbelief. Before they were too awe-struck to touch him. Notice the girl’s hand on Papa’s shoulder after her dunking, a lover’s touch.

This does a couple of things: it is yet another example of Ghost’s rhetoric of freedom through individuality and shared sexual experience. Since Ghost is the antithesis of a religion that enslaves women through sexual suppression and repression, then Ghost is the religion that frees them. Sexual awakening and sexual power have always had a major role to play for Ghost. Another thing this does is reinforce the previous dangerous imagery of the evangelical minister. Jim Jones and other cult leaders, including Charles Manson, often separated the females from the males, ostensibly to protect their sacred bodies, but more often than not so as to keep the women and sexually mature girls for themselves, with always their choice of virgins to “liberate”. Notice Papa does not baptize any men in this scene.

General Observations

First, this is the only music video of Ghost’s that I have ever seen in which the entire band is not present. Ghost is a packaged deal. You do not usually see Papa Emeritus unaccompanied by the Nameless Ghouls. There has been some drama with the band behind the scenes. I do not spread or perpetuate rumors, and I do not speculate about the absence of the band. There are those better qualified than I to write on the subject of the band’s absence from this video.

Second, Ghost has come a long way from the low-budget stage productions and music videos of past Ghost albums, namely Opus Eponymous and Infestissumam. Though always in keeping with the band’s theme and concept, music videos have always been straight forward and conceptual. For example, “Secular Haze” has the feel of being broadcast from a local access evangelical television station.

“Year Zero” only has two scenes in which “plot” actually occurs.

With the coming of Meliora and Popestar, we see a rise in animated, artistic videos, such as “Pinnacle to the Pit” and “Square Hammer”.

And then of course there are videos like “Cirice” and “He Is” in which there is a clear story and what Zev Deans, director of “He Is”, refers to as a “punch line” which is meant to convey criticism as opposed to simply offending anyone (though that does not really matter).

Third, Papa retains the black and white skull makeup marking him as the third incarnation of Papa Emeritus for the video. Papa always has a place in Ghost videos. Notice in “Cirice” that Papa III is played by a small child in the talent show. Papa usually always plays himself in one form or another, and in this, “He Is” is no different. However, it gives the video’s message an edge of irony. You do not serve just any evangelical prophet, you serve Papa Emeritus III. Ultimately the bright pastels and lighting is a lie, a criticism of the highest order of the ridiculousness of evangelical liturgy.

Fourth (I’m sorry!), but the idea of the sexual awakening is not sexually liberating. I feel that the unfortunate result of Ghost’s message is that sexual awakening and sexual growth does not serve the women of Papa’s following, but it serves Papa in much the same way as the evangelical cult leaders that Papa imitates in the video monopolized the female bodies of their followers. In every instance of female sexual awakening, Papa is at the center of it, even with the music video for “Monstrance Clock” in which a young, sexy woman can be seen towards the video, meant to embody the spirit of “Coming together”. Papa and Ghost is the center of this awakening, and it exists only to further romanticize the band. Ghost enjoys a singular coed fan base that is largely due to the power and seduction exuded by Papa in all of his incarnations, even his nasty first incarnation. In my opinion, I feel that to call Ghost “woke” to any feminist idea of sexual liberation grossly misses the point of feminism in which females own their own sexuality as opposed to only being sexualized for a male agenda. If anything, Ghost undermines this and has done so ever since it’s inception. If Ghost were to reverse this, it could be classified as yet another part of their rhetoric, but since they don’t reverse the undermining of female sexual power through individual ownership (which is clear from their depictions of women in their videos), no assertion can be made to me that Papa’s vow to invite sexual freedom to his female followers and promote the enjoyment of sex for all of Ghost’s followers is anything more than sensationalism. Know it, see it, own it, recognize it, and take it for what it is. I do not enjoy Ghost less for this. It’s part of the romance of the band, and part of its allure.

Conclusion

Ghost is one of my favorite bands. While it’s saddening to see that the full band was not part of the video for “He Is”, it is jeartening to see that Ghost is still committed to criticizing organized, evangelical religion that preys on the faith of it’s followers for the sake of a privileged few instead of bringing a community closer together for the sake of the many. Ghost embodies the spirit of individualism, pushes boundaries, encourages conversation, and above all, preaches tolerance through a rhetoric of allegory and satire with decadent spectacle that goes back to the days of Faust. There is Satanism and theater at work in Ghost. Those who tell you otherwise do not understand Ghost.

Though Ghost offers a clear ironic message in “He Is”, it cannot be mistaken for anything but the satire and theatrics the band presents and, unfortunately, continues to undermine feminist individualism (though it is not weaponized and certainly is not meant to be undermining in a way that subjugates. It just doesn’t do its job that well).

The music video for “He Is” is available to watch on YouTube. Spread the Word!

 

Experience Stephen King’s IT in Virtual Reality

For the select few cities lucky enough to receive this gem from San Diego Comic Con, slip into your big girl panties and don’t chicken out on the ultimate introduction to the new IT film, set for release September 8, 2017! The exhibit is free and open to the public, but for us Austin-ites, it was only here for two days! I had heard about it by mid-week but couldn’t land where it was actually taking place until 5 o’clock yesterday. If you missed it, Austin-ites, I’m dreadfully sorry. IT has since moved on.

I would like to preface this write-up by saying I am the least qualified to bring you a run-down of this virtual reality sensory overload. I have a history of reacting badly to horror related events, like haunted houses, haunted hayrides, the Halloween aisle at Party City–all of the Spirit Store…

You get the idea. From almost my earliest memories, I have been absolutely afraid of horror in person. So it was with some trepidation that I talked myself into making the hour long drive up from South Austin to the Alamo Drafthouse at Lakeline Mall to stand before the mere 45 foot long tube of nightmares.

An old retired school bus has been rendered filthy and blackened as if by age and grime. At the tail end of it, the logo for "IT" is scrawled in red paint. Screens on the side of the bus previewed the latest trailer for the film
The FLOAT simulation is a mobile virtual reality experience, first exhibited at San Diego Comic Con, and now on a limited tour ahead of the release of the new IT film.

I almost got back in my car and left.

Outside, a line formed, mostly of people leaving the theater. The experience didn’t open it’s doors until 7, which meant those leaving the new Annabelle: Creation showing were able to catch it on their way out. The folks in line ahead of me spoke in animated tones, having seen the four-minute clip of Georgie’s final moments before Annabelle. Some are calling that clip the best part of going to see the latest installation of the Annabelle franchise, but that’s neither here nor there.

I'm standing in along the profile of the school bus, which has "Derry High School" stenciled on the side of it like the school bus from the film. Blood and grime spatters the sides.
See, proof I went to a scary exhibit. Alone. Like a big girl.

I signed the waiver saying I don’t have any medical conditions and took my place in line. This was to be me no real film footage, but rather a cinematic adventure that lasted only about 12 minutes at the most. An excellent aperitif to anyone going into the theater and a night cap for those leaving–if one dared.

Upon entering, you are bathed in strobing light pulsing over a pair of sliding double doors at the end of the space (roughly half the size of the bus). Normally I would have been nauseously afraid, being at the end of the line, a prime target for any other haunted house exhibit. But this was nor ordinary haunted house. The strobing light gave the cramped space the impression of being bigger than it was. Fog–dare I say it–floated from nozzles at our feet. All around us were the haunting, anxious sounds of the sewer we “Losers” found ourselves standing in.

Scott Wampler got a few shots of the interior of the space on his write-up at birthmoviesdeath.com. I’ve taken the liberty of showing them off here. Credit goes to the photographer. This was the same exhibit I went to yesterday.

Scott Wampler stands patiently waiting for the double doors to slide back.
Fellow Austin-ite Scott Wampler at birthmoviesdeath.com snapped this shot of the doors of the “pipe” we all stood in. I stood with about six other people during my visit, so pictures were impossible. Credit to the photographer.

In the same room as the sliding double doors, a backlit floor representing the floor of the “pipe” we were standing in. In the streaming “water” lay the scattered “remains” of the children lured into Pennywise’s lair. George’s boat was easily recognizable, along with a shoe and a Frisbee.

The backlit floor looked as close to streaming sewer water as you could get without getting your feet wet. "Debris" littered the "water", including Georgie's boat.
Scott Wampler and the folks at birthmoviesdeath.com snapped a shot of the floor of the “pipe” we were standing in.

 

As we stood in the “pipe” listening to Pennywise “approach” and laughing in a strained manner, a cold rush of air blasted us out of nowhere. We all got quiet, then laughed it off nervously, anticipating the sliding doors, which did eventually slide open after the last of the exhibit group before us exited the bus. Our “tour guide” surprised us with a good-natured “Boo!”

Stepping inside the back half of the bus was an altogether different experience than the “tube”. Red light flooded the “cabin”, and two rows of high-quality cinematic motion chairs greeted us. We adjusted our headsets and headphones. Be wary. As soon as the headset goes on, the event starts, so be quick, and don’t take it off. Remember to turn your chair, and look around. Some of the scenes have images that take place around and behind you. Don’t be afraid to move around. And don’t sit on your cords.

Obviously you can’t take pictures of the exhibit. I won’t reveal any scenes or events. None of it was “spoilery” in any case. Nothing you haven’t seen in the trailers. The motion of the VR environment and the movement of the chair make for an adventure rarely had even in the Capital of High Tech Entertainment. Prepare to have your spatial orientation tested, along with your mettle. From the fog floating around our feet, to the motion of the chairs, everything floated. VR is an excellent medium for voyeurism. You are not part of the reality so much as you are on a journey through it. You still live through the experience of someone or something that is not yourself. There you are in the chair, already suspended, and constantly in motion. Your lack of control over the situation is just one part of the cosmic fear you will experience on this exhibit. You are alone in the headset. You came with friends, but none of them can save you. This is the essence of IT. In the end, each of the Losers, though in company, journeys into the sewers alone to face their own particular fears. Pennywise just happens to be the face of them.

I will say this. Bill Skarsgard is the end-all-and-be-all of Pennywise. Tim Curry’s camp is a thing of the past, and in the past is where it shall stay. Bill Skarsgard frightens with his gravelly accent. He seduces with friendly tones. He invites you with open arms. You want to go play with him. What could possibly go wrong? Bill Skarsgard and Tim Curry both offered their victims the promise a good time; an empty promise, with a cold grave, but each went about it in their own way, and each were successful. If you look at it that way, you won’t be disappointed with Skarsgard as the new Pennywise. Like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, Tim Curry will go down as much-beloved and fondly-remembered as Pennywise (and still a favorite!), but no longer King Clown.

They assured us we were being recorded. I’m waiting for video to surface of me talking to Pennywise like an old friend before gradually changing my tune.

Myself standing outside the FLOAT exhibit, too jangled to go back in. Later I would wish I had.
My nerves were so jangled after that, I could only be on the highway for a few seconds before I nearly had a panic attack. I took the back roads back to Mopac and sped all the way home.

I should have gone back through a second time. The event was free, so there is no cost prohibition. I did not ask if I could go back through. At the time, once was enough for me. But I had one eye open through all of it, and kept my back purposefully to Pennywise for a lot of it. His voice followed me. The balloons…

The exhibit’s next stop is Miami. If you are in any of the upcoming towns, I strongly urge you to go step inside and let Pennywise take you for a literal spin.

The front of the exhibit in partial opacity with FLOAT: A Cinematic VR Experience as the title. Upcoming tour dates are Miami August 14, Philidephia, PA the 18th through the 20th, Chicago, Illanoise the 24th through the 27th, Toronto, Canada August 30th through September 3rd, and heads back to Los Angeles, CA September 8 (film release date) through September 10th.
The upcoming tour dates for FLOAT.

 

Stephen King’s IT: Trailer #1

A large, glowing pair of letters, I T, are emblazoned on a blood splattered black background.
IT’s new title and logo is a throwback to the old logo released on the cover of King’s novel in 1986.

Let’s all be real for a second. The first two glimpses we had of IT thus far have only been teasers. Here we are two months out from the release of the film, and we get our first real trailer, a full two-minutes and twenty-three seconds.

And quite honestly, the hype is starting to get to me.

Falling Back In Love With IT

For those of you just joining us, and who’ve managed to live under a rock for the last seventeen years, the film adaptation of Stephen King’s enduring novel, IT, is getting a reboot. There are some notable changes to the costume, characters, and nature of the monster from the mini-series, which starred Tim Curry as the clown aspect of a monster haunting the small town of Derry, Maine.

There are those of us who spent our childhood terrified of clowns thanks to Tim Curry’s performance in 1990. Then, there are those of us whose love of horror and the weird is encapsulated in this iconic horror character. For those whom this fear is enduring, I feel for you, because the rest of us are going to go see IT in theaters. In the dark. With our closest friends.

IT was both a bright spot and a turning point in my childhood. My twin sister and I were die-hard horror fans. By the age of 14, she and I had been renting–because that was a thing!–and reading horror stories and films that required a parents’ presence. Our parents never censored our reading, and my mom handed over her ID in irritation every time it was asked for.

“I don’t understand why I have to be here,” she would say, “They can watch whatever they want, but if it gives ’em nightmares, they ain’t sleepin’ with me.”

Callous, yes, but I appreciated it. It made me feel in control. The bright spot was that, as a young teen, I knew that at any point I could make my own decisions about what I read and saw, and I never let anyone make those decisions for me. As result, I’m now quite sensitive as an adult to how my step-son feels about some content. We don’t force violent or explicit content on him (we have small living situation and only one TV), yet we don’t actively monitor what he is watching (unless there is sex, of course. Jeez yall.).

My best friend, conversely, was having every step of her existence monitored because it was believed that her “bad behavior” was linked to what I was doing. If anything, her bad behavior was linked to the negative attention she was getting at home. The only time her parents paid any attention to her was when she was doing something wrong. I became the house pariah. If I got to watch horror movies in my house, she didn’t in hers. If I got to go to metal concerts, she didn’t. If my mom bought me a book, and I let her borrow it, her parents took it and gave it circuitously back to my parents, who handed it right back to me with a sideways smirk, more aggravated that they had been brought out into public after six p.m. than by anything someone else thought I had done wrong.

My friend was trying to live through me, and IT became our best-kept secret. IT was one of the few films we thought we got away with. There was little sex, and most of the horror was supernatural. No slicing and dicing (unless you count Henry Bowers). IT the miniseries was largely harmless compared to the novel, which my friend never made it all the way through–at least at the time.

The cover art for the novel features Georgie's paper boat resting beside a sewer grate, through which green claws emerge to grasp at the surface.
Cover art for Stephen King’s 1985 novel, IT

I read the book at an age where many parents would have slapped it out of my hands had they known exactly how graphic it was. As sharply adult as the contents were, I did not put it down. I read it four times, twice in the summer before high school. My sister read through it the first and second time with me, but after I began it the third time, then the fourth time, she put it down in favor of other King novels, The Tommyknockers, Misery, and Carrie. I had read The Eyes of the Dragon in middle school, and I would go on to read The Green Mile, but IT will forever be cemented as my gateway drug to Stephen King.

The turning point was certainly the content. Up to that point, IT was the hardest novel I had ever read (and I had been reading adult novels for a year by then–none of them “age-appropriate”). Though it would be several years before I attempted anymore hardcore adult books (Brian Lumley), I found that I learned something about human nature every time I read it. I learned that all bullies come from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually their home. I learned that our parents can be very dangerous to us. I learned that abuse is not love. I learned that sex is not love–and I probably learned a lot about sex. I learned that some people are born evil, and some are made that way by circumstance and hardship, but that no evil is excusable. I was more afraid of the way Tom treated Bev than I was of the wolfman in the old house. I was more afraid of Bev’s dad than I ever was of Pennywise. I learned that even a bully like Henry Bowers was nothing compared to the serial killer in the making that was Patrick Hocksetter, and I learned how satisfying it can be when a truly bad character gets what is coming to him. I learned about the soul-crushing grief of a losing a child. Thanks to IT, I learned about Lovecraft’s weird tale before I had ever even heard his name, and that set the stage for further reading, which has led me to this point in life, where everything we touch seems to be connected to Ol’ Howard in some way, and though I was not truly introduced to Lovecraft through King–I have Brian Lumley to thank for that pleasure–the essence of Lovecraft’s danger from the Outside is tangible in IT.

I learned a lot when I read that novel, and like the Losers Club, I will say that I learned far too much about life, sex, and fear, and I learned it far too fast.

Trailer Break-Down

Our first two introductions to Andrés Muschietti’s take on this much-debated favorite were teasers. Each of them featured iconic scenes that those who favored both the miniseries and the novel would have recognized: Georgie’s end, and the venture into the sewer in the Barrens. Who could have guessed that a clown emerging from inside a sewer drain could have come to represent so much fear and anxiety when King wrote it? Who even gave that any consideration? Up until IT, I was just afraid of that flatworm from season two of The X Files. Who could have thought that it could be so much more frightening than just a campy clown with a balloon? Bill Skarsgard thought so, and his portrayal of Pennywise thus far has left nay-sayers in dismay and die-hards in confusion. The departure of the campy Pennywise is having the same effect the departure of campy Batman did, and not everyone is pleased. I am not one of those people.

Bill Skarsgard in Pennywise costume and makeup taunts Georgie, tempting him with his own paper boat. The character is shrouded in shadow, revealing only his slightly glowing eyes and riktus grin.
Pennywise offers Georgie his boat back from his hiding place in the sewer, a new take on a classic scene that is cemented in the minds of all horror fans.

The new Pennywise is much closer to the novel version, with a dingy silver suit and jester’s ruff. He’s less loquacious than Tim Curry’s character. The Pennywise of the novel had always disappointed me a little because he was nothing like Tim Curry, but I think ol’ Pennywise is about to be redeemed. The makeup is far more severe. I love those bucked teeth! I love that crazy hair! I love how gross he gets in standing water! There was never a hair out of place on Tim Curry’s head at any time, but Bill gets down and dirty like the filthy monster that he is!–not Bill himself, duh you guys. Have you all seen Bill Skarsard? Bill’s hot!

The scene in which Pennywise kills Georgie is important to the entire story for two reasons: 1) it gives Bill the motivation he needs to unite the Loser’s Club against the monster stalking Derry; 2) the monster uses Georgie a number of times to lure Bill into a trap. Like the novel and the miniseries, Bill is going to have a large part to play in Derry’s future.

Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise crouches in standing water at the feet of his puppet, the corpse of little Georgie. He is laying or crouching in standing water as Georgie floats above him. Only the top of his soaked head and glowing eyes are visible.
Pennywise uses Georgie to lure Bill into a trap.

Beverly is going to be an interesting character from what I can see in the trailer. It looks like Bev and Bill have a lot of chemistry, and that would not really be terribly off base. Bev and Bill had chemistry in the novel as well. I had more to add to that, but I’m afraid I’ll divulge too much of what’s to come. Read the novel. There are only a few places where you will slightly regret this single life choice.

Bev is not the only female character Pennywise targeted in either the miniseries or the novel, but Bev’s character was unique. Her father abused her mercilessly. It’s almost as if Bev were being groomed for Pennywise, weakened, but Bev surprised It. She fought back. I have more to add to this as well, but again, it may be giving too much plot away for those who haven’t read the novel. So go read the novel!

In each instance in the trailer, Pennywise can be seen targeting specific Losers, not as a group. Not only does this increase the tension for each of the flashes of scene presented, Pennywise is at It’s most frightening when It targets a lone child. Remember in the miniseries when Pennywise threatened Bev in her bathroom. It only sent her a nasty “love note” in the drain, and disappeared as quickly as her father approached. Pennywise’s true power lays in sneak attacks, scare tactics, and a long end game. Pennywise has no power over the average human adult, and the average human adult is only too used to letting things slip under the radar as long as they are not themselves affected. The good people of Derry, as we see in many of the trailer’s scenes, and as Bill asserts, are content to let the matter drop, even as their own children start to disappear.

Bill Skarsgard dressed as Pennywise seems to lean into Bev's window, grabbing her by the throat.
Pennywise surprises Bev in her home.

All in all, I think this trailer, combined with the teasers, has been most enlightening. According to The Verge, there is going to be a lot that derails from the novel and the miniseries, and that is totally fine. Remember that the miniseries was IT Lite, a shallow, bare-bones representation of the book, focused more on giving you the willies about clowns than remaining true to the unique, fully-flensed, robust characters of King’s novel. “The film will also add plot beats and scenes that don’t appear in either the novel or miniseries. It will, however, still use the town of Derry to help illustrate just how deep Pennywise’s influence runs,” writes

Not sure how I feel about referring to the main villain as “Pennywise” considering that was just one of It’s many aspects. Also I’m not too keen on the film setting, but that’s a hold over for nostalgia. In the novel, the Losers grew up in the 50s, and were in their thirties during the adult scenes, which were set in the mid 1980s. Director Andrés Muschietti is giving the story a more contemporary feel, having the Losers grow up in the 1980s, making them my age for the adult plot. This might infuse the story with new blood, and I will more than likely be able to identify with the characters in the story–I assume. Granted, I never had any trouble identifying with the children in the novel despite a 30 year age difference.

I cannot wait to see how this pans out, and I can’t believe we have to wait until September.

Success or Failure: The Nature of a Stephen King Novel

Stephen King’s novels are defined by their characters. No single King novel adaptation has been worth its salt if it is anything but driven by the characters that King worked his bum off to create. This is arguably why the original IT fell a smidge short as a King adaptation, and this where others of his novels excelled, such as the film adaptation of The Green Mile, which adhered close to the plot of the novels and focused its energy on the characters of the novel, which might have been easier than, say, The Langoliers, or IT due to it’s setting. It’s hard not to concentrate on a single aspect of cinema when almost the entire story is set in a single cell block. This is going to be a major challenge for Nikolaj Arcel and his cast as they navigate and condense the boundless realm of The Dark Tower.

Whatever Andrés Muschietti has in mind for the film, it’s success or failure will hinge on his ability to bring not only the monster to life, but the children as well. Stephen King’s cast of characters represented the power of acting in numbers to effect real change. The Losers learned that family and love are not always bonds of blood. There are going to be scenes in the novel that illustrated this that will never see the silver screen. There are also going to be scenes whose lessons were clear in the novel, but were so disturbing in nature that I certainly never want to see them brought to the screen. The genius of King is what he does to the psyche. The genius of those who adapt his works is doing the same thing with fewer child murders. Muschietti will have to find some other way to fill in those gaps for scenes that won’t make it past the FCC.

Conclusion

It cannot be denied that if this film strives to only be a monster movie, it will fail. IT was not a novel about a scary clown. IT was a novel of courage, vengeance, love, and resistance. The monster was merely a universal force to be reckoned with. The true terrors of Derry were bullies who went unchecked; apathetic, abusive, and overprotective parents; and the dreary malignancy that settles on small towns like Derry; and no matter how far we run away from the monsters of our childhood, they have a horrifying way of dragging us back.

I am wholeheartedly looking forward to the new IT. Whether it lives up to the reputation the film is building for itself remains to be seen.

For now, though, we float on.

 

The Bonds of Blood: A Review of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

I was beyond honored to receive an ARC of Scourge to review. I have been a fan of Gail Z. Martin since her debut novel, The Summoner, and for every year since I have not missed a release. Waiting for another novel from Ms. Martin is like waiting for the latest season of your favorite show. You’re not sure how it could get better. It just does, and with each passing episode (or page) you become more heavily endeared to the characters and settings. Getting into the rich worlds of Gail Z. Martin is a privilege I hope everyone will take advantage of.

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Spoiler Free Review

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst has everything the adventurous seeker of a swashbuckling good time could hope for: forbidden magic, a household of undertakers unwillingly drawn into a war they cannot see for a purpose they cannot hope to understand without further aid, a rich cityscape woven into a larger world map full of corruption to be overcome. While the Valmonde brothers fight for their lives and livelihood on the ground, the Lord Mayor of the province of Ravenwood plays a dangerous game of political intrigue, holding a loose-canon blood mage in the palm of his hand the way a desperate man clutches the stock of a gun, full of amazement at the raw power and afraid to use it. Unknown to all is an even more elaborate game that not even the Lord Mayor is privy to, and over it all is yet another rich pantheon of guild gods and goddesses that demand loyalty from their artisan worshipers, driven before a frightening pantheon of Elder Gods that will not be denied.

The Valmonde brothers, Corran, Rigan, and Kell, are worshipers of Doharmu, the only Guild God of the Bakaran League who doubles as a Guild God and an Elder God, the only god that requires no sacrifice because all must go to Doharmu in the end. As Undertakers, the Valmondes perform the ritual rights of burial, sending the souls of good men, women, and children on to the After, and sending the scum of the earth to the Void where they belong. The Valmondes are Martin’s most endearing family, held together by ties of family and blood that even the worst tragedy cannot tear apart. When Rigan discovers the grave magic of his order is fueled by more than ritual, Rigan must find a way to control the dangerous weapon his being has become before he loses control entirely, or else forfeit his life to the witch hunters in Lord Mayor Machison’s employ. Corran fights to defend his home and brothers and friends from vicious monsters attacking the city that seem to spring from the ground. Corran soon discovers the city’s guards seem more interested in stopping the hunters than protecting the people from the monsters, and behind it all is the cruelty of a blood mage worthy of any GrimDark tale. Between the fight of the Valmondes and the Lord Mayor’s machinations are the innocent people of Ravenwood. Gail Z. Martin stretches her legs as a mastermind of political intrigue with a cast of characters whose greed knows no bounds, and gives voice to one of her most vile monsters.

Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst offers the reader a popcorn-popping page turner that will brook no interruption!

No Holds Barred! Spoiler Alert!

Do Not Proceed If You Haven’t Read It!

WAIT. WHERE AM I?

Scourge has something for everyone from casual readers to veteran scholars of epic fantasy. Though Martin isn’t known for gross sex scenes and even her horror scenes lack a little bit of brute force (this isn’t the creepy death-ridden landscape of Deadly Curiosities) Martin has surprised me of late with a few characters that make me question my moral compass. Vedrand Pollard from the Ascendant Kingdoms was the start of the trend. To this day I can’t quite figure out if I hate him or not. Lord Mayor Machison, for all that he ends his reign of terror on a down beat, also seems to only be doing the best he can with what he has. Sure, Machison has zero conscience and doesn’t see himself for the butcher that he is, but that’s the beauty of his character. No one, no matter how awful they are, considers themselves to be wholly evil. They will always find a redeeming quality in themselves. Though Machison will stop at nothing to achieve his goals, he is not at first prepared to sell his own people out wholesale. Machison is at war as much with himself as he is with his rivals, and Martin’s walk with Machison down the dark road of utter insanity and desperation that culminates in Machison’s final fall from grace leads me to wonder: when the Hell did we wander into GrimDark country?

For those who are unfamiliar, GrimDark is a genre of fantasy that may or may not include protagonists whose moral compass points due south and and whose monsters make better heroes than the beautiful people. Those who understand GrimDark will understand why I don’t entirely hate Pollard and why Machison is easily the most compelling character in Scourge.

Unseasoned fantasy readers may find Martin’s political intrigue hard to follow at first, but with Machison at the rudder, you’ll soon get your bearings.

Oh. now that’s just not fair.

I have so little to criticize in this latest gem from one of my favorite authors, for whom I am a legacy reviewer and would be happy to continue writing reviews as long as she keeps writing novels! But for the love of all that’s GrimDark, not Blackholt!

Haha! You thought I was gonna talk about Kell. Well…I can’t talk about Kell…I’m not crying, you are!

I tried to make my peace, but I cannot leave this alone! Blackholt is easily one of Martin’s most vile bad guys. Pentreath Reese might have been a mad man–and a vampire!–but he was at least partially on a leash. Blackholt is a loose canon. He works on a cash-only basis but to Blackholt, wealth is immaterial. Preservation of the balance is Blackholt’s sole motivation, though it cannot be denied he’s married to his work. Martin let go of the leash a little with Blackholt and has proven yet again that the monster is truly at his worst when he speaks.

It is Blackholt’s treatment that left me in agony. One can only hope that this is not the last we have heard of a monster as powerful as Blackholt, and if that is the end of the blood mage, I hope that the next time we get a gruesome character as unstable as Blackholt, we get to hold onto him a little longer. There was a great potential of emotional depth and depravity that is hinted at but never followed through with.

I know…I’m weird. I like the bad guys. I’m sure I’m alone in this. For all that he was a shade of black that I want wrap up in like my favorite sweater, he was the bad guy, and he got what every bad guy deserves, and no one can say it was not satisfying to see the Valmondes in their moment of triumph!

Back In The Safe Zone: Closing

It is my sincere hope that we have not heard the last of the Valmonde brothers as they strive to pull Ravenwood, and the rest of Darkhurst, back from the brink of destruction. Scourge is a bright beginning to an all new realm that combines the familiar comfort of The Summoner and the Winter Kingdoms with Martin’s latest work in the realms of urban fantasy with her Deadly Curiosities novels. Gail Z. Martin is a veteran author with an on-going bibliography that, Oj and Ren willing, shows no signs of stopping.

You can pre-order Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst here!

Stock photo of Gail Z. Martin, author of Scourge.
Gail Z Martin is the author of Scourge: A Novel of Darkhurst

Gail Z. Martin is the acclaimed author of The Winter Kingdoms Novels, The Fallen Kings Cycle, The Ascendant Kingdoms, and The Deadly Curiosities novels, as well as the author of several collections of short fiction from her various worlds and realms. She released the Essential Social Media Marketing Handbook in 2017, and is an anchor author for several anthologies. You can find her on Twitter @GailZMartin, disquietingvisions.com, and the Ghost In the Machine podcast to name just a few of the ways you can find out more about this talented, prolific author and brand manager.

Want to get in on the goods and get to know Gail, join us at The Shadow Alliance on Facebook. DM me at @SquealingNerd on Twitter to get you an invite! We still have a few t-shirts and tote bags!

I designed the -shirt for fantasy author Gail Z. Martin's grassroots marketing group, the Shadow Alliance. It is a digital composite design that utilizes some of the effects of her cover art for The Summoner, runes, and text that reads, "Gail Martin's Shadow Alliance. Forged in Iron and Blood, Straight Outta Edgeland".

 

Dark Corners Presents: An Excerpt of Scourge by Gail Z. Martin

A full moon on a twilit sky highlights "The Hawthorn Moon: A Sneak Peak Event" on the banner for Gail Z. Martin's book tour artwork.
Gail Z. Martin’s book tour event, The Hawthorne Moon.

Dark Corners is proud to host Gail Z. Martin on her Hawthorn Moon book tour this sweltering summer. This year, we’re featuring one of Ms. Martin’s latest offerings, Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel

An Excerpt from Scourge: A Darkhurst Novel

By Gail Z. Martin

A raven carrying a twig on a scarlet crest on a parchment-colored background describes the cover art for Martin's latest novel, Scorge. Scourge and the author's name are written in a red script to match the crest.
Cover art for Gail Z. Martin’s latest novel, Scourge, welcoming you all to the realm of Darkhurst.

Chapter One

A HEAVY IRON candleholder slammed against the wall, just missing Corran Valmonde’s head.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Try not to make her mad, Corran.”

Rigan Valmonde knelt on the worn floor, drawing a sigil in charcoal, moving as quickly as he dared.

Not quickly enough; a piece of firewood spun from the hearth and flew across the room, slamming him in the shoulder hard enough to make him grunt in pain.

“Keep her off me!” he snapped, repairing the smudge in the soot line. Sloppy symbols meant sloppy magic, and that could get someone killed.

“I would if I could see her.” Corran stepped away from the wall, raising his iron sword, putting himself between the fireplace and his brother. His breath misted in the unnaturally cold room and moisture condensed on the wavy glass of the only window.

“Watch where you step.” Rigan worked on the second sigil, widdershins from the soot marking, this one daubed in ochre. “I don’t want to have to do this again.”

A small ceramic bowl careened from the mantle, and, for an instant, Rigan glimpsed a young woman in a blood-soaked dress, one hand clutching her heavily pregnant belly. The other hand slipped right through the bowl, even as the dish hurtled at Rigan’s head. Rigan dove to one side
and the bowl smashed against the opposite wall. At the same time, Corran’s sword slashed down through the specter. A howl of rage filled the air as the ghost dissipated.

You have no right to be in my home. The dead woman’s voice echoed in Rigan’s mind.

Get out of my head.

You are a confessor. Hear me!

Not while you’re trying to kill my brother.

“You’d better hurry.” Corran slowly turned, watching for the ghost.
“I can’t rush the ritual.” Rigan tried to shut out the ghost’s voice, focusing on the complex chalk sigil. He reached into a pouch and drew a thin curved line of salt, aconite, and powdered amanita, connecting the first sigil to the second, and the second to the third and fourth, working
his way to drawing a complete warded circle.

The ghost materialized without warning on the other side of the line, thrusting a thin arm toward Rigan, her long fingers crabbed into claws, old blood beneath her torn nails. She opened a gash on Rigan’s cheek as he stumbled backward, grabbed a handful of the salt mixture and
threw it. The apparition vanished with a wail.

“Corran!” Rigan’s warning came a breath too late as the ghost appeared right behind his brother, and took a swipe with her sharp, filthy nails, clawing Corran’s left shoulder.

He wronged me. He let me die, let my baby die— The voice shrieked in Rigan’s mind.

“Draw the damn signs!” Corran yelled. “I’ll handle her.” He wheeled, and before the blood- smeared ghost could strike again, the tip of his iron blade caught her in the chest. Her image dissipated like smoke, with a shriek that echoed from the walls.

Avenge me.

Sorry, lady, Rigan thought as he reached for a pot of pigment. I’m stuck listening to dead people’s dirty little secrets and last regrets, but I just bury people. Take your complaints up with the gods.

“Last one.” Rigan marked the rune in blue woad. The condensation on the window turned to frost, and he shivered. The ghost flickered, insubstantial but still identifiable as the young woman who had died bringing her stillborn child into the world. Her blood still stained the floor
in the center of the warded circle and held her to this world as surely as her grief. Wind whipped through the room, and would have scattered the salt and aconite line if Rigan had not daubed the mixture onto the floor in paste. Fragments of the broken bowl scythed through the air. The iron candle holder sailed across the room; Corran dodged it again, and a
shard caught the side of his brother’s head, opening a cut on Rigan’s scalp, sending a warm rush of blood down the side of his face.

The ghost raged on, her anger and grief whipping the air into a whirlwind.

I will not leave without justice for myself and my son.

You don’t really have a choice about it, Rigan replied silently and stepped across the warding, careful not to smudge the lines, pulling an iron knife from his belt. He nodded to Corran and together their voices rose as they chanted the burial rite, harmonizing out of long practice, the words of the Old Language as familiar as their own names.

The ghostly woman’s image flickered again, solid enough now that Rigan could see the streaks of blood on her pale arms and make out the pattern of her dress. She appeared right next to him, close enough that his shoulder bumped against her chest, and her mouth brushed his ear.

’Twas not nature that killed me. My faithless husband let us bleed because he thought the child was not his own.

The ghost vanished, compelled to reappear in the center of the circle, standing on the bloodstained floor. Rigan extended his trembling right hand and called to the magic, drawing on the old, familiar currents of power. The circle and runes flared with light. The sigils burned in red,
white, blue, and black, with the salt-aconite lines a golden glow between them.

Corran and Rigan’s voices rose as the glow grew steadily brighter, and the ghost raged all the harder against the power that held her, thinning the line between this world and the next, opening a door and forcing her through it. One heartbeat she was present; in the next she was gone, though her screams continued to echo.

Rigan and Corran kept on chanting, finishing the rite as the circle’s glow faded and the sigils dulled to mere pigment once more. Rigan lowered his palm and dispelled the magic, then blew out a deep breath.

“That was not supposed to happen.” Corran’s scowl deepened as he looked around the room, taking in the shattered bowl and the dented candle holder. He flinched, noticing Rigan’s wounds now that the immediate danger had passed.

“You’re hurt.”

Rigan shrugged. “Not as bad as you are.” He wiped blood from his face with his sleeve, then bent to gather the ritual materials.

“She confessed to you?” Corran bent to help his brother, wincing at the movement.

“Yeah. And she had her reasons,” Rigan replied. He looked at Corran, frowning at the blood that soaked his shirt. “We’ll need to wash and bind your wounds when we get back to the shop.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

They packed up their gear, but Corran did not sheath his iron sword until they were ready to step outside. A small crowd had gathered, no doubt drawn by the shrieks and thuds and the flares of light through the cracked, dirty window.

“Nothing to see here, folks,” Corran said, exhaustion clear in his voice. “We’re just the undertakers.”

Once they were convinced the excitement was over, the onlookers dispersed, leaving one man standing to the side. He looked up anxiously as Rigan and Corran approached him.

“Is it done? Is she gone?” For an instant, eagerness shone too clearly in his eyes. Then his posture shifted, shoulders hunching, gaze dropping, and mask slipped back into place. “I mean, is she at rest? After all she’s been through?”

Before Corran could answer, Rigan grabbed the man by the collar, pulled him around the corner into an alley and threw him up against the wall.

“You can stop the grieving widower act,” he growled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Corran standing guard at the mouth of the alley, gripping his sword.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The denial did not reach the man’s eyes.

“You let her bleed out, you let the baby die, because you didn’t think the child was yours.”

Rigan’s voice was rough as gravel, pitched low so that only the trembling man could hear him.

“She betrayed me—”

“No.” The word brought the man up short. “No, if she had been lying, her spirit wouldn’t have been trapped here.” Rigan slammed the widower against the wall again to get his attention.

“Rigan—” Corran cautioned.

“Lying spirits don’t get trapped.” Rigan had a tight grip on the man’s shirt, enough that he could feel his body trembling. “Your wife. Your baby. Your fault.” He stepped back and let the man down, then threw him aside to land on the cobblestones.

“The dead are at peace. You’ve got the rest of your life to live with what you did.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked away, as the man choked back a sob.

Corran sheathed his sword. “I really wish you’d stop beating up paying customers,” he grumbled as they turned to walk back to the shop.

“Wish I could. Don’t know how to stop being confessor to the dead, not sure what else to do once I know the dirt,” Rigan replied, an edge of pain and bitterness in his voice.

“So the husband brought us in to clean up his mess?” Corran winced as he walked; the gashes on his arm and back had to be throbbing.

“Yeah.”

“I like it better when the ghosts confess something like where they buried their money,” Corran replied.

“So do I.”

The sign over the front of the shop read Valmonde Undertakers. Around back, in the alley, the sign over the door just said Bodies. Corran led the way, dropping the small rucksack containing their gear just inside the entrance, and cursed under his breath as the strap raked across raw shoulders.

“Sit down,” Rigan said, nodding at an unoccupied mortuary table. He tied his brown hair into a queue before washing his hands in a bucket of fresh water drawn from the pump. “Let me have a look at those wounds.”

Footsteps descended the stairs from the small apartment above.

“You’re back? How bad was it?” Kell, the youngest of the Valmonde brothers, stopped halfway down the stairs. He had Corran’s coloring, taking after their father, with dark blond hair that curled when it grew long. Rigan’s brown hair favored their mother. All three brothers’ blue
eyes were the same shade, making the resemblance impossible to overlook.

“Shit.” Kell jumped the last several steps as he saw his brothers’ injuries. He grabbed a bucket of water and scanned a row of powders and elixirs, grabbing bottles and measuring out with a practiced eye and long experience. “I thought you said it was just a banishing.”

“It was supposed to be ‘just’ a banishing,” Rigan said as Corran stripped off his bloody shirt.

“But it didn’t go entirely to plan.” He soaked a clean cloth in the bucket Kell held and wrung it out.

“A murder, not a natural death,” Corran said, and his breath hitched as Rigan daubed his wounds. “Another ghost with more power than it should have had.”

Rigan saw Kell appraising Corran’s wounds, glancing at the gashes on Rigan’s face and hairline.

“Mine aren’t as bad,” Rigan said.

“When you’re done with Corran, I’ll take care of them,” Kell said. “So I’m guessing Mama’s magic kicked in again, if you knew about the murder?”

“Yeah,” Rigan replied in a flat voice.

Undertaking, like all the trades in Ravenwood, was a hereditary profession. That it came with its own magic held no surprise; all the trades did. The power and the profession were passed down from one generation to the next. Undertakers could ease a spirit’s transition to the realm beyond, nudge a lost soul onward, or release one held back by unfinished business. Sigils, grave markings, corpse paints, and ritual chants were all part of the job. But none of the other undertakers that Rigan knew had a mama who was part Wanderer. Of the three Valmonde
brothers, only Rigan had inherited her ability to hear the confessions of the dead, something not even the temple priests could do. His mother had called it a gift. Most of the time, Rigan regarded it as a burden, sometimes a curse. Usually, it just made things more complicated than they needed to be.

“Hold still,” Rigan chided as Corran winced. “Ghost wounds draw taint.” He wiped away the blood, cleaned the cuts, and then applied ointment from the jar Kell handed him. All three of them knew the routine; they had done this kind of thing far too many times.

“There,” he said, binding up Corran’s arm and shoulder with strips of gauze torn from a clean linen shroud. “That should do it.”

Corran slid off the table to make room for Rigan. While Kell dealt with his brother’s wounds, Corran went to pour them each a whiskey.

“That’s the second time this month we’ve had a spirit go from angry to dangerous,” Corran said, returning with their drinks. He pushed a glass into Rigan’s hand, and set one aside for Kell, who was busy wiping the blood from his brother’s face.

“I’d love to know why.” Rigan tried not to wince as Kell probed his wounds. The deep gash where the pottery shard had sliced his hairline bled more freely than the cut on his cheek. Kell swore under his breath as he tried to staunch the bleeding.

“It’s happening all over Ravenwood, and no one in the Guild seems to know a damn thing about why or what to do about it,” Corran said, knocking his drink back in one shot. “Old Daniels said he’d heard his father talk about the same sort of thing, but that was fifty years ago.
So why did the ghosts stop being dangerous then, and what made them start being dangerous now?”

Rigan started to shake his head, but stopped at a glare from Kell, who said, “Hold still.”

He let out a long breath and complied, but his mind raced. Until the last few months, banishings were routine. Violence and tragedy sometimes produced ghosts, but in all the years since Rigan and Corran had been undertakers—first helping their father and uncles and then running the business since the older men had passed away—banishings were usually uneventful.

Make the marks, sing the chant, the ghost goes on and we go home. So what’s changed?

“I’m sick of being handed my ass by things that aren’t even solid,” Rigan grumbled. “If this keeps up, we’ll need to charge more.”

Corran snorted. “Good luck convincing Guild Master Orlo to raise the rates.”

Rigan’s eyes narrowed. “Guild Master Orlo can dodge flying candlesticks and broken pottery. See how he likes it.”

“Once you’ve finished grumbling we’ve got four new bodies to attend to,” Kell said. “One’s a Guild burial and the others are worth a few silvers a piece.” Rigan did not doubt that Kell had negotiated the best fees possible, he always did.

“Nice,” Rigan replied, and for the first time noticed that there were corpses on the other tables in the workshop, covered with sheets. “We can probably have these ready to take to the cemetery in the morning.”

“One of them was killed by a guard,” Kell said, turning his back and keeping his voice carefully neutral.

“Do you know why?” Corran tensed.

“His wife said he protested when the guard doubled the ‘protection’ fee. Guess the guard felt he needed to be taught a lesson.” Bribes were part of everyday life in Ravenwood, and residents generally went along with the hated extortion. Guilds promised to shield their members from the
guards’ worst abuses, but in reality, the Guild Masters only intervened in the most extreme cases, fearful of drawing the Lord Mayor’s ire. At least, that had been the excuse when Corran sought justice from the Undertakers’ Guild for their father’s murder, a fatal beating on flimsy charges.

Rigan suspected the guards had killed their father because the neighborhood looked up to him, and if he’d decided to speak out in opposition, others might have followed. Even with the passing years, the grief remained sharp, the injustice bitter. Kell went to wash his hands in a bucket by the door.

“Trent came by while you and Corran were out. There’s been another attack, three dead. He wants you to go have a look and take care
of the bodies.”

Rigan and Corran exchanged a glance. “What kind of attack?”

Kell sighed. “What kind do you think? Creatures.” He hesitated. “I got the feeling from Trent this was worse than usual.”

“Did Trent say what kind of creatures?” Corran asked, and Rigan picked up on an edge to his brother’s voice.

Kell nodded. “Ghouls.”

Corran swore under his breath and looked away, pushing back old memories.

“All right,” he said, not quite managing to hide a shudder. “Let’s go get the bodies before it gets any later. We’re going to have our hands full tonight.”

“Kell and I can go, if you want to start on the ones here,” Rigan offered.

Corran shook his head. “No. I’m not much use as an undertaker if I can’t go get the corpses no matter how they came to an end,” Corran said.

Rigan heard the undercurrent in his tone. Kell glanced at Rigan, who gave a barely perceptible nod, warning Kell to say nothing. Corran’s dealing with the memories the best way he knows how, Rigan thought. I just wish there weren’t so many reminders.

“I’ll prepare the wash and the pigments, and get the shrouds ready,” Kell said. “I’ll have these folks ready for your part of the ritual by the time you get back.” He gestured to the bodies already laid out. “Might have to park the new ones in the cart for a bit and switch out—tables are
scarce.”

Corran grimaced. “That’ll help.” He turned to Rigan. “Come on. Let’s get this over with.”

Kell gave them the directions Trent had provided. Corran took up the long poles of the undertaker’s cart, which clattered behind him as they walked. Rigan knew better than to talk to his brother when he was in this kind of mood. At best he could be present, keep Corran from having to deal with the ghouls’ victims alone, and sit up with him afterward.

It’s only been three months since he buried Jora, since we almost had to bury him. The memory’s raw, although he won’t mention it. But Kell and I both hear what he shouts in his sleep. He’s still fighting them in his dreams, and still losing.

Rigan’s memories of that night were bad enough—Trent stumbling to the back door of the shop, carrying Corran, bloody and unconscious; Corran’s too-still body on one of the mortuary tables; Kell praying to Doharmu and any god who would listen to stave off death; Trent, covered in Corran’s blood, telling them how he had found their brother and Jora out in the tavern barn, the ghoul that attacked them already feasting on Jora’s fresh corpse.

Rigan never did understand why Trent had gone to the barn that night, or how he managed to fight off the ghoul. Corran and Jora, no doubt, had slipped away for a tryst, expecting the barn to be safe and private. Corran said little of the attack, and Rigan hoped his brother truly did not remember all the details.

“We’re here.” Corran’s rough voice and expressionless face revealed more than any words.

Ross, the farrier, met them at the door. “I’m sorry to have to call you out,” he said.

“It’s our job,” Corran replied. “I’m just sorry the godsdamned ghouls are back.”

“Not for long,” Ross said under his breath. A glance passed between Corran and Ross. Rigan filed it away to ask Corran about later.

The stench hit Rigan as soon as they entered the barn. Two horses lay gutted in their stalls and partially dismembered. Blood spattered the wooden walls and soaked the sawdust. Flies swarmed on what the ghouls had left behind.

“They’re over here,” Ross said. The bodies of two men and a woman had been tossed aside like discarded bones at a feast. Rigan swallowed down bile. Corran paled, his jaw working as he ground his teeth.

Rigan and Corran knew better than most what remained of a corpse once a ghoul had finished with it. Belly torn open to get to the soft organs; ribs split wide to access the heart. How much of the flesh remained depended on the ghoul’s hunger and whether or not it feasted undisturbed. Given the state these bodies were in—their faces were the only parts left
untouched—the ghouls had taken their time. Rigan closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willing himself not to retch.

“What about the creatures?” Corran asked.

“Must have fled when they heard us coming,” Ross said. “We were making plenty of noise.”

Ross handed them each a shovel, and took one up himself. “There’s not much left, and what’s there is… loose.”

“Who were they?” Rigan asked, not sure Corran felt up to asking questions.

Ross swallowed hard. “One of the men was my cousin, Tad. The other two were customers. They brought in the two horses late in the day, and my cousin said he’d handle it.”

Rigan heard the guilt in Ross’s tone.

“Guild honors?” Corran asked, finding his voice, and Ross nodded.

Rigan brought the cart into the barn, stopping as close as possible to the mangled corpses. The bodies were likely to fall to pieces as soon as they began shoveling.

“Yeah,” Ross replied, getting past the lump in his throat. “Send them off right.” He shook his head. “They say the monsters are all part of the Balance, like life and death cancel each other out somehow. That’s bullshit, if you ask me.”

The three men bent to their work, trying not to think of the slippery bones and bloody bits as bodies. Carcasses. Like what’s left when the butcher’s done with a hog, or the vultures are finished with a cow, Rigan thought. The barn smelled of blood and entrails, copper and shit.

Rigan looked at what they loaded into the cart. Only the skulls made it possible to tell that the remains had once been human.

“I’m sorry about this, but I need to do it—to keep them from rising as ghouls or restless spirits,” Rigan said. He pulled a glass bottle from the bag at the front of the wagon, and carefully removed the stopper, sprinkling the bodies with green vitriol to burn the flesh and prevent the
corpses from rising. The acid sizzled, sending up noxious tendrils of smoke. Rigan stoppered the bottle and pulled out a bag of the salt-aconite-amanita mixture, dusting it over the bodies,
assuring that the spirits would remain at rest.

Ross nodded. “Better than having them return as one of those… things,” he said, shuddering.

“We’ll have them buried tomorrow,” Corran said as Rigan secured their grisly load.

“That’s more than fair,” Ross agreed. “Corran—you know if I’d had a choice about calling you—”

“It’s our job.” Corran cut off the apology. Ross knew about Jora’s death. That didn’t change the fact that they were the only Guild undertakers in this area of Ravenwood, and Ross was a friend.

“I’ll be by tomorrow afternoon with the money,” Ross said, accompanying them to the door.

“We’ll be done by then,” Corran replied. Rigan went to pick up the cart’s poles, but Corran shook his head and lifted them himself.

Rigan did not argue. Easier for him to haul the wagon; that way he doesn’t have to look at the bodies and remember when Jora’s brother brought her for burial.

Rigan felt for the reassuring bulk of his knife beneath his cloak—a steel blade rather than the iron weapon they used in the banishing rite. No one knew the true nature of the monsters, or why so many more had started appearing in Ravenwood of late. Ghouls weren’t like angry ghosts or
restless spirits that could be banished with salt, aconite, and iron. Whatever darkness spawned them and the rest of their monstrous brethren, they were creatures of skin and bone; only beheading would stop them.

Rigan kept his blade sharpened.

———————————————————

Scourge is available for pre-order on Amazon and at your local purveyors of fine parchment products.

 

A Gathering of Ravens, a Simple Review from a Humbled Reader

Some Spoilers Ahead

For those of you who are tired of ordinary fantasy, fed up with the same spry elves with gorgeous hair, and bored with the same old, tired, almost-always male protagonists and below-average intelligence bestiaries:

Welcome to Grimdark

Grimdark is that section of speculative fantasy and science fiction that just doesn’t go anywhere. Cross-platform plots, mixed bestiaries, unicorns in space, and a host of morally bankrupt protagonists make it difficult for Barnes and Noble to parse it by shelf section, so the readers and writers of Grimdark have created a class all their own.

Arguably, it was Michael Moorcock’s harsh criticism of his predecessor, Tolkien, that may have sparked the movement, but it is also found as far back as Mervyn Peake (Moorcock’s own inspiration) where we first begin to see the signs of decadence in a setting ruled by a monarchy no one would be sad to see die off in a genre traditionally ruled by monarchies whose protagonists are sworn to uphold them. In Peake we see the rise of the kitchen boy destined to be greater than he is, no matter who he has to drown, starve, maim, or humiliate to realize his endgame. Peake and Moorcock gave us the beautiful people we can’t love and villains we don’t hate.

Grimdark is defined by protagonists who are morally ambiguous. Sex is in your face, and not everyone enjoys it. Damsels save themselves. Elves are perhaps perverse and decadent while Orcs are the only beings you can trust. Anything Warhammer.

Leading the way in the pop culture front, often characterized as “Low Fantasy” is George R. R. Martin, R. Scott Baker, and the traditional Grimdark go-to’s: Glen Cook, Richard A. Knaak, and of course Michael Moorcock. Down here among the plebeians, we’re happy to promote the-up-and-comers: Michael Fletcher, Dyrk Ashton, and the inimitable Scott Oden. In fact that’s why I’ve gathered you all here today.

Let’s talk Grimdark: A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden

I am sitting in my living room holding my copy of A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden for a selfie.
The pink says “cutie pie” but the hair cut says “We muster at first light.” I’m holding my advanced reader copy of Scott Oden’s A Gathering of Ravens.

If you were looking for a historical Grimdark fantasy tale that is one half-shaved head away from Ragnor Lothbrok, look no further than A Gathering of Ravens, set for publication June 20, 2017 from Thomas Dunne Books. Scott Oden is no self-published novice. He’s a veteran author known for his previous works, Memnon and The Lion of Cairo, which I hope to pick up before the year is out. Scott Oden returns to his place among the scholars with A Gathering of Ravens, a novel set in medieval Scandinavia, England, and Ireland that tells a fast-paced, epic story of vengeance, oath breaking, kin slaying, and unshakeable faith. Fans of the History Channel television show Vikings will find a lot to love in this novel, especially if you have made it to any of the later seasons.

I was fortunate to be among the few who were given an ARC of AGoR, and let me tell you, my friends, you are in for a treat. Oden does not handle this novel like a traditional fantasy or traditional history novel. He blends the singular combination of a race of mythical people that spans three separate historical civilizations with a creature from the beastiaries we love to hate: orcs. Oden’s main character, Grimnir, is the last of a cursed race called the kaunr, so hated by the Norse that they are called skrailinger, and that wrecked such havoc during the Norse and Danish invasions that they are even known in England as the orcneas, and in Ireland as the fomorach. Mythically, they were the children of Ymir. According to Oden’s notes at the end of the novel, traces of the kaunr could be glimpsed in Grendel from Beowulf, and among the Fomorian of Irish legend, from which Oden takes their Irish name. Oden cleverly weaves these scraps of legend into a race of creatures bred for war and destruction, but with a keen sense of clannishness and bonds of blood that cannot be forgotten no matter how poisonous that particular blood relation might be. Hated and marginalized, the kaunr are wiped out, leaving only Grimnir Baelegyr’s Son and one other hated half-blood relative, Bjarki Half Dane.

Caught up in Grimnir’s quest for weregild (blood for blood) is Etain, a woman hiding as a Christian priest to escape a vengeful husband and devote her life to God. She has a role to play in Grimnir’s fate that she cannot escape, and must use her faith in God to hold onto her humanity as the last of her innocence is stripped from her.

As a story, Oden’s pacing for this novel is unmatched. In only 319 pages, Oden’s characters cross three countries and two timelines. The novel is episodic yet never strays from its original story arch. Oden’s characters are infuriatingly bull-headed (both of them) yet where Grimnir’s stalwart refusal to give up is unhealthy, Etain’s steadfast faith is a testament to her character as a human being. Her refusal to give up that faith against the onslaught of pagan magic surrounding her seems naive at first, and one expects her to break eventually from it. However, Etain soon learns that her faith is a shield and her greatest weapon. Etain is literally the embodiment of, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not falter.”

As a member of a race nearly forgotten by man, Grimnir’s own faith infuriates Etain, who is convinced that even Grimnir can be saved if he finds God. Grimnir does not compromise. He is everything you could possibly hope for in a strong protagonist, except for the part where he literally does not care about anyone but himself, not even Etain really.

The battle between the two faiths has no clear-cut good or evil, one true God or Allfather. No matter who is worshiped, everyone is going to Hell. Every character in the novel is the protagonist of his or her own story. For those who are looking for morals and happy endings, you’ll find it here but juuuuust barely. Characteristic of true Grimdark, no one is truly good or truly evil in this novel, which will draw many in the current market that made a hero out of Walter White and never got past the second book of Paradise Lost, but it may repulse traditional fantasy readers who are looking for Aragorn and Frodo. Grimnir killed them and he is not sorry.

Conclusions

As the fantasy market continues to prove itself as glutted and pretentious as all pop culture markets, Grimdark is a genre of fiction by the people for the people. When the industry stopped giving us what we needed from fiction, Grimdark authors wrote it themselves. You will be able to find A Gathering of Ravens on sale on Amazon in June. As a belated birthday present to me, please do yourself a favor and pre-order this novel. Scott Oden is proving that the independent publication industry is here to stay while deserving a wide readership among those who frequent the New York Times bestseller lists for their nightstand book pile.

Once again, thank you for this book, Scott. It took me forever to finish it because I did not want it to end.

Beep Beep, Richie: Stephen King’s IT in 2017

Bill Skarsgard's Pennywise is unamused as he observes strange doings from his avantguard perch inside a storm drain. He's a much darker, less campy Pennywise than Tim Curry.
“Did someone say my name? Thought I heard someone say my name. Who wants a balloon?”

I wasn’t going to watch the trailer for Stephen King’s IT, as the film is not set for release until September of 2017. I wanted to see if the film would live up to the hype that IT was going to be much closer to King’s novel. However, I have serious misgivings, now, as the trailer has met with mixed reviews among horror aficionados that I know and respect for their highly educated opinions on contemporary horror. I sat down to the trailer this morning and for the life of me I can’t understand why this film is already catching so much shade.

I would like to put my misgivings to rest right now. If your absolute argument against the trailer for the film is that it doesn’t look enough like the original miniseries, or it looks too much like the original series, please read on. If you’re argument against the new IT is that it looks just like Stranger Things, then please get off this page, go read Stephen King’s novel, which he wrote in 1986, then tell me who is ripping off who.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Your Fear of Clowns

I have never been afraid of clowns.

One time, I was lost a camp fair event and clowns helped me find my parents. Never was afraid of clowns ever again. Not even Pennywise. Pennywise gave me new reasons to love clowns. After seeing the original miniseries as a child, and again as a teenager, there was never a moment of my childhood where I was afraid of Pennywise the clown. Thanks to The X:Files season 2 episode 1 “The Host”, I was already afraid of things coming out of my drain, and storm drains, and porta potties. I was so happy to discover there was a clown in the drains that might eat that damn fluke worm man! Bless you, Evil Clown!

Pennywise the clown stairs up out of a storm drain at little Georgie.
Georgie chases his paper boat down the street, where it falls into a storm drain, and Pennywise is waiting.

When Pennywise came out of the drain in the shower scene with Eddie, all I could imagine was Pennywise doing that to every single girl in my middle-school locker room that picked on me.

Pennywise, the evil clown, played by Tim Curry, climbs out of the showers at the school gym as Eddie Kasbrack watches in horror and dismay.
Pennywise emerges from the gym showers to frighten Eddie Kasbrack. I knew a few people I wouldn’t have minded feeding to It.

Killjoy from the uninspired, but still relentlessly creative, mind of Charles Band and Full Moon Pictures is a highly underrated clown film. Killjoy the Clown rides Pennywise’ coat tails for campy horror, but the frightening world Killjoy builds is a universe of mindlessness and chaos that is also the Joker and Hellraiser.

Killjoy's smile is relentless. His teeth are filed down to points, and they're green. His hair is black and tuffed out like a tircorn hat. He wears pink and green.
Killjoy is the story of an evil clown doll awakened by unwary victims. There were four Killjoy films, true to the nature of B Horror film studio, Full Moon Pictures.

I was never afraid of clowns. Clowns became my protectors. The one room at the Terror Mansion that I didn’t scream my way through was the killer clowns. My ex-boyfriend was not so lucky, but I walked through with a pleasant wave. Not afraid of clowns.

Stephen King’s Genius

What frightened me about the original IT was not the clown, but rather what the clown stood for. Stephen King’s IT was Lovecraftian cosmic horror at it’s finest, and I read IT at a time when I had no idea who Lovecraft was. Once I read The Colour out of Space, I knew immediately who had inspired King to write IT, just as I knew years later who inspired Dan Simmons to write Ilium and Olympos. IT was not just a reflection of the a child’s demons coming back to haunt them. IT was Stephen King’s answer to Lovecraft’s “fear of the unknown”. The novel opens on the scene of a drag queen describing to an officer the strange death of his lover. The officer is disdainful of the account, and King wrote the scene with a frightening lack of compassion towards the transvestite, and a disquieting contempt from the officer. By the end of the scene, a young reader is just as disgusted as the cop. Yet, there is something so pathetic about the transvestite’s tale. Could it have been true? King explores fears of the unknown throughout the entire novel, everything from homophobia, to racism, to puberty and sexuality, to ultimate cosmic terror.

For those who have not read IT, it’s a daunting 1,048 pages, and I read it four times one summer. I learned new things from IT each time I read it. I found new things to hate about some of the characters. I found new ways to sympathize with some, but there were always going to be things about the book I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized Mike Hanion’s archival work on the origins of IT it was Lovecraft in disguise.

King’s novel is not about overcoming impossible fear; it’s about learning to deal with the cosmic forces around us; it’s about accepting one’s place in the universe, and about challenging our antagonizers; it’s a celebration of the individual will to survive, to forge an identity, to be heard; King’s novel is not about facing childhood demons; it’s a gritty coming-of-age story whose characters are who they are because of what they’ve experienced; it’s about knowing you never have to fight alone, and accepting change.

Thematically, it was very different from the miniseries.

What I Took From the Miniseries

I knew as a kid that there was no way all of King’s genius was going to be boiled down into a miniseries, so I decided that I liked both for different reasons. I loved how casting made Richie Tozier look like Jeff Foxworthy (or maybe that’s hindsight, I don’t know). I loved the camp Tim Curry brought to the character of Pennywise. There was no camp in the book. I loved how the kids in the miniseries dealt with their fears the way children would deal with them. The main difference is that, though the Losers Club fought with the tools they had with the only knowledge they had against a foe that was not of this world, in the novel they were forced to grow up hard and fast, and all in one day, to protect themselves.

The Losers Club stand their ground against Henry Bowers and the bullies at the fight at the rock quarry, a scene that is inconic in both the novel and the miniseries.
From left to right: Bev, Richie, Ben, Mike, Bill, Stan, and Eddie, the Losers Club from Stephen King’s IT.

I loved how both the novel and the miniseries characterized adults as just as unsafe and unhealthy as the monster the kids were fighting. Bev’s dad is abusive in the miniseries, and downright incestuous in the novel. Eddie’s mother suffocates him with her love and protection in both. Bill’s parents were never the same after Georgie’s death in the novel, and treated their oldest son with benign neglect. Something the miniseries lacked was motivation for Henry Bowers, something King provides, which rounds out the character and gives a voice to yet another monster: the bully.

If you are looking for much of the novel in the miniseries, you won’t find it. Sex was a huge part of King’s novel, and even in this day and age, I doubt a group of twelve-year-olds are going to have sex on screen in any movie theater in the US. The clown played a central roll in the miniseries, though It does take other forms; but considering the fact that It only takes the shape of a clown a few times in the novel, It’s other forms don’t play that big of a role in the miniseries. All of Mike Hanion’s archival work is scrapped in the miniseries, and Mike is relegated to the token black kid, when in fact the novel was much more dependent on him. Several other characters were cut, like Patrick Hocksetter. Vic and Butch were token characters in the miniseries as well.

The word I would best use to describe the miniseries’ relevance to the book is “oversimplified,”–not “hacked”, not “gutted”, just “oversimplified.” The miniseries took the basic plot of the novel and made it digestible.

For me, King’s novel and the miniseries were two very different things. I like them both for entirely different reasons, and it is with this in mind that I approach the trailer for the 2017 version of Stephen King’s IT.

We All Float Down Here…Do We Really, Though?

The new trailer excited me! I know so many erudite people are unimpressed with it. Julia Morgan of Morbid and Unhealthy was not ambiguous about her disappointment with the trailer. Sagan Amery of the band Sagan had very mixed feelings regarding the way a reboot should be made, but was overall kind in her assessment that it fell short of her expectations that the film version should not copy the original miniseries. What I’m not getting from anyone is what exactly everyone was expecting. I invite you all to leave me comments or tweet those to me. Let’s be adults about this.

I know exactly what I was expecting:

I was expecting the scene with Georgie. It’s canonical to the novel and a throwback to the miniseries. I was expecting Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise to be nothing like Tim Curry. I would never agree to see the film if Skarsgard was just a Pennywise reboot. I was expecting the sit down scene in which the Losers Club hashes out what they’ve seen and I was even expecting the bad child actors. I was expecting all of the characteristic and iconic scenes of the miniseries because they were also present in the novel. One thing I approved of the miniseries for was adhering to the bare bones of the plot of the novel. The bare bones, mind you. Like I mentioned before, the plot of the miniseries was just IT Lite.

I expect there to be a few key scenes in the Barrens. Fun fact, that’s where a good portion of the novel takes place. I expect the scene in the old house, I expect the scene at the rock quarry, and the scene in the sewers (both of them), and many of the scenes of the adults. Because that’s how the book was as well.

I loved the unrelentingly dark atmosphere of the new trailer. I was glad to see that the trailer hinted, much better than the miniseries, that there was no safe place in Derry, Maine. I loved how Eddie uses his inhaler as a shield, the way he does in the book.

Tim Curry balances on an old-time light pole in the picture of Derry during a parade that suddenly comes to life in a history book.
Tim Curry plays Pennywise in the original miniseries. In this scene Pennywise emerges from a history book in Ben’s hands to issue his threat to the Losers Club.

I loved the slideshow scene. I don’t remember that from the book, but I loved, loved how Pennywise emerged from the slideshow, just like he does from the history book in the miniseries, to make his presence known to the Losers Club and declare war. There is a very similar scene in the novel too, though I believe it takes place in the Barrens.

Pennywise emerges in stop-motion from the face of a woman into the face of a clown behind red hair blowing in the wind.
Pennywise emerges from a slideshow to issue It’s threat to the Losers Club, a new take on an old fan favorite.

I like the new take on that scene despite the fact that it is a throwback to the miniseries. I love the fact that Pennywise doesn’t really speak in this trailer. Good. Can’t wait to hear It in the theater.

What I didn’t like were the kids. Are there really no two children on the planet to play Bill and Eddie that don’t look like they could be brothers? I always thought this about the miniseries too. Their reactions in the slideshow scene are over-wrought at best. They destroy the tension of that scene. Georgie hitting his head in the opening destroys the tension of that scene. Horror film rule number one: don’t break tension. I hope this isn’t exemplary of the rest of the film. I also couldn’t pin down the timeline of the film. Where was Henry Bowers? He was important to both the novel and the miniseries.

Henry Bowers, in a brown leather jacket, his hair comebed into a pompedor, threatens to kill Mike Hanion, the only black person in the Losers Club.
Henry Bowers leads Butch Huggins, Vic Criss, and some other bullies in an attack on the Losers Club at the rock quarry, a scene iconic in both the miniseries and the novel.

Is it all going to be set in the 50s? Where were the grown up scenes in the 80s? Perhaps the lack of grown-up scenes and contemporary setting for the last quarter of the film will be the absolute derailment that critics are looking for. You could have given a whole miniseries to the Losers Club alone and still done a good job. If they leave the adults out, I will be slightly confused; but as I did with the book, the miniseries, and this trailer, I will temper my expectations.

My Final Thoughts, As If You Asked For Them.

I think that unless you have read the novel, you will not understand that a reboot of the film is going to resemble the miniseries in a lot of ways. I had read the novel four times by the time I was fourteen. I’m one of the few people of my age group that can say the novel had more of an influence on my childhood than the miniseries did. However, as I mentioned before, if you are looking for the camp of the original, or for a happy go lucky killer in Pennywise, yer gonna be sad. If you are looking for a completely original story from the miniseries, yer gonna be sad.

Nostalgia is going to be one of the key tools for marketing this film. Like the people who played Pokemon Go in their adulthood loved Pokemon in their childhood, this film is playing on the fact that the adults seeing this film remember the miniseries from their childhood. Producers cannot afford to alienate that market. Conversely, audiences are going to be looking for Pennywise and Co to be brought into the modern era. We’re looking for shock and awe, not slow-burn psychological torture. We’re looking to reincarnate the monster film, which has long been dead. The new IT has some very big clown shoes to fill. I imagine there are going to be a fair number of disappointed fans and newcomers on both sides, but I will temper my expectations, and try to remember that if I can love both the novel and the miniseries despite their key differences, then maybe I can still enjoy this film too, and enjoy it for what it is.

Pennywise crouches in black sewer water behind a doppleganger of Georgie, taunting Bill. It's eyes are glowing sulferous yellow and green.
Aren’t you all even a little curious to see how this scene plays out, even if we already know?

I’ll do a write-up on the life and times of the American monster movie when the next trailer for IT is released. For now, though, I’m just going to hop on this silver Schwinn here with the playing cards pined to the wheel spokes. I’m armed with my trusty slingshot, and I don’t need no stinkin’ batches.

“High-ho Silver! Away!”

Update 4/11/2017

I was doing a little research and discovered the emphasis of this film will be on the children of the Losers Club with the adult Losers getting their own sequel film. Hope this helps. It definitely reassures me that both the kid Losers and the adult Losers will get more than enough exploration. Also, I had a great conversation with one of my friends in Washington state, and he made an excellent point: the success of this film definitely hinges on the treatment of the human characters rather than the monster. Stephen King uses the supernatural as a tool, but always King’s novels are character-driven. As I mentioned before, IT is not just a story about cosmic horror. Both as a child and as an adult, monsters lurk in the shadows, masquerading as our parents, our lovers, and classmates. King would have had an entire award-winning novel even without the impending threat of cosmic dread. This is the strength of King’s writing. I hope the film embraces this. If not, it will just be a monster movie. If it’s going to be a killer clown slasher, it should be just that. Leave the cosmic terror out of it. Unfortunately, when it comes to a King novel adaptation, it has to be all or nothing.

Tempering my expectations just got a lot harder.

Folklore Thursday: The Island of No Return

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world. This segment is Dark Corners’ tribute to the original concept, though I do not claim any credit or affiliation with that site.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Judaism, Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism.

We’re continuing with the unknowable and the macabre this week with an examination the urban legends of the haunted island of Poveglia, and the face of a figure whose very presence inspires fear and revulsion to this day: the mysterious, ominous plague doctor.

But first, an introduction to urban legends.

Urban Legends

According to the textbook definition, urban legends are, “humorous or horrific stories or pieces of information circulated as though true, especially one purporting to involve someone vaguely related or known to the teller.”

Urban legends spread a lot like folk traditions. Almost no one you talk to can pinpoint an exact source. They may tell you they heard it from a friend, but it’s not very specific, or that it happened to someone they know. However, some are sparked by a rash of crimes (like the clowns in the woods in the Carolinas last year). There may be more than one version of the story, but here is one that is a local favorite in my home town, San Antonio.

A school bus stalled on a set of train tracks south of Mission San Juan in San Antonio, and was struck by a train. Every so often, rumors would surface in my home town that so-and-so parked their car on the tracks (as the area is a popular artist haunt, and San Antonio is a tourist town, heralded as the most haunted city in Texas). They would leave their car in neutral on the tracks in the dead of night and wait. People would report that they could hear voices of the children, or that their car would mysteriously roll forward, off the tracks, and the next day, you could see small hand prints on the dust on their car. As the story goes, the children’s ghosts would try to push the car off the train tracks.

A front page section of a newspaper from The San Antonio Express News in 1938. The headline mentions that the death toll of the school bus accident continues to rise.
It seems in 1938 there really was an accident involving a bus and a train.

It doesn’t help that it appears to have actually happened. However, whether or not the ghosts of the children killed in the crash actually push your car off the tracks is unknowable.

Lydia the Phantom Hitchhiker from North Carolina is another popular one. On a family trip to St. James Island for Cousins Week, my ex’s mother’s cousin told us she had actually seen the ghost of Lydia on her way home one night. The story goes that Lydia died in a car accident on Highway 70 South in North Carolina. In a book called The Vanishing Hitchhiker, Professor Jan Harold Brunvand documents over eleven different variations on the story circulating in North Carolina. However, the story seems to be as old as time itself. According to the book, hitchhiker disappearances were a real problem in the US, and almost every state in the Union has a story about a ghost girl who died in a car crash and who is trying to get back home.

Most urban legends today are being fueled by the speed with which we can now access and spread information. In the 1970s, the girl’s name was not Lydia. One usually heard “Mary” or another common name. It is only in recent years that not only has the ghost girl been given a name, but people have actually nailed down a destination called “Lydia’s Bridge” on Highway 70 south between Raleigh and Greensboro. Never mind that, according to research, it’s not even a bridge, but a culvert.

As Lidia says with a shrug, “Details.”

Other urban legends have sprung from pop culture. It is easy to confuse urban legends with pop culture, as sometimes one doesn’t know where the urban legend ends and the source begins. For example, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark was popular in the 1990s, and documented several urban legends into print, including “The Hook” in which a couple decides to make out at Lookout Point. A radio announcer warns people that a serial killer with a hook for a hand is on the loose, just across the wood from where the couple is parked. Though the boyfriend blows it off, the girl becomes nervous and begs to be driven home, which the angry boyfriend does. When they arrive at her house, they discover a hook dangling from the car door. The story may have first appeared in a “Dear Abby” column, and news stories of teenagers going into the woods for some necking and getting slaughtered would have set whole neighborhoods on edge.

Though printed officially, and now out of the realm of the urban legend, it seems the legend is as old as the 1950s, and serves as a cautionary tale about teenage sex. In the story, the boyfriend guns the engine in anger and tears off into the woods, explaining how a bloody hook has come to be stuck to the car door handle. The couple narrowly escapes dying in the woods. In the instance of this story, the girl’s refusal to have sex saves them both from being murdered.

A more recent example of pop culture’s influence over our urban legends is a site called Creepypasta. It’s a user-generated content site designed to share frightening art and stories from around the world, a form of social media for the artistic and chronically bored. It is from a similar wellspring of daytime distraction called Something Awful that the Slender Man was born.

A black and white photo of an abnormally tall, faceless creature holding the hand of a young girl in a forrest. Slender Man
This is the Slender Man, originally a Photoshop contest entry that took on a life of its own.

The Slender Man was supposedly a tall figure in a pinstripe suit with no face. A few photographs of him holding the hand of a young girl were entered as part of a Photoshop contest on Something Awful. A video game in which you had to solve his riddles cropped up, followed by a slew of reaction videos on YouTube. In May of 2014, two twelve-year-old girls lured their friend out into the woods of Wisconsin and stabbed her nineteen times. She was able to crawl to a nearby roadside, where a biker rendered aid. She was able to recover, but it was the Nation who would spend the next several years reeling in shock. The girls claimed that they stabbed the other girl to please the Slender Man.

Though not originally an urban legend, the Slender Man took on a life of his own on the Internet in a frenzy of hysteria that led to actual crime, and ever since, children all over the country warn against traveling too deep into the woods, lest they fall victim to the Slender Man.

Urban legends can often be mistaken for folklore, but because they are not tied to any one particular group and often take their source from pop culture or the media, they are not classified as folklore. Television shows on networks like Scyfy and The Travel Channel perpetuate unsubstantiated claims and scripted descriptions of haunted places, mixing urban legend with fact, weaving a dizzying narrative to excite and frighten. There is no place on Earth that could possibly exude the kind of harrowing, nightmare aura and downright evil spirit, steeped in the blood of thousands talked about on The Travel Channel. There is no place on Earth quite like the small Venetian island of Poveglia.

Influences on the Legend of Poveglia

In the Venetian Lagoon there sits a small island. It is uninhabited, and has been so since 1968, after a sanitarium and long-term care facility had officially been abandoned. Several attempts were made by the Italian government to sell or lease it, hoping to revive the island.

A lagoon vista at sunset, with pastel light. The island of Poveglia's bell tower is plainly visible.
The small Venetian island of Poveglia, seen from a distance. The bell tower is plainly visible.

But, as urban legend would have it, apparently the island of Poveglia is accursed indeed.

What dark secrets lurk behind the crumbling walls and packed earth of Poveglia? Why has ScyFy’s Scariest Places on Earth dubbed Poveglia, “the Island of No Return”?

The Rich Occult History Of Venice

According to The Scariest Places on Earth, pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Venice was awash in blood. At the epicenter of the cultural revival, rebirth, upheaval, and wealth, Venice, according to myth and popular imagination, was fueled on the life blood of dark energy.

Much of this might be boiled down to urban legend and myth–and let’s all remember that television shows like Scariest Places in the World rely heavily on dramatic representation. There is even a disclaimer at the beginning of the show that warns that some reproductions are purely for dramatic effect. Translations can be made to say anything that suits the show’s purpose. Despite the unreliability of most made-for-tv documentaries, a resurgence in ceremonial magic during Renaissance Humanism may point to a prevalence of a sort of cognitive dissonance that allowed for both the belief in the ritual of the transmutation during the Eucharist and pagan ceremonial magic. Side-by-side, they don’t seem terribly different. By definition, ceremonial magic involves a complex ritual to produce a magical effect. What could possibly be more magical than a piece of bread and some wine turning into the body of Christ as it enters you? Among the wealthy and bored, even magical practices banned under canon law held much Romance and allure, such as chiromancy, or palm reading, which became popular during the Renaissance with the influx of Romani into Europe.

There are other aspects of Venetian life in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance Italy that point to the hint of licentious activities, and that was the cultural norm of mask-wearing. The “bauta” was the most common. It covered the whole face, and had a protruding bottom half that tapered, allowing the wearer to eat, drink and talk. Mask-wearing was generally accepted only by the elite.

A person of unknown identity stands in a black tricorn hat and black robe wearinga white bauta mask during Carnival.
An example of the full “bauta” costume and mask, popular now during the Venetian Carnival.

However, if a pauper or low-class person donned the mask, it was incredibly objectionable to force them to identify themselves. Mask-wearing was culturally inviolate. There was too great of a risk that one might offend a peer. Often this was how lower classes mingled with the wealthy. More specifically, the bauta also refers to the style of costume worn along with the mask, involving a tricorn hat and red cape. It is only too easy to wonder what darkness lay at the heart of a culture that reveled in assuming alternate identities.

The bauta may be best recognized by it’s use in, arguably, the greatest metal band in the world right now, Ghost, who brought back the bauta for their first and second incarnations. Ghost’s major selling point is that no one really knows who each of the band members actually is. Revealing their true identities, even among fans, is likely to get you ostracized and banned from groups on Facebook (I’ve never done it, but I’ve seen it before–Ghost fans are protective). It is a gimmick that is as highly favored among Ghost fans. Even Papa Emeritus (the Pope one) is actually wearing a mask.

Papa Emeritus wears a papal Mitre and black and green robes. His mask is painted to resemble a skull face. The Nameless Ghouls are dressed in black robes with cowels and bauta masks.
The band, Ghost, at Coachella in full regalia. Papa Emeritus is in the center, surrounded by the Nameless Ghouls. Notice the masks.

But of all the ways in which Italy may be steeped in a horrifying history, none is more horrifying than the toll taken upon the land during The Black Death.

The Black Death

According to History.com, the bubonic plague, or the Black Death (or what we refer to these days as “The Plague” or “The Black Plague”) arrived in Europe by sea in 1347, though by the time the Plague reached Messina in Sicily, rumors were already spreading of a pestilence carving a swatch through the East and Middle East.

The Black Death was the single most devastating epidemic to ever strike humanity. According to the CDC, the Ebola virus outbreak killed 22,620 people in West Africa in 2014, and still pales in comparison to the 20 million deaths across Europe attributed to the Black Death. Death by Plague was horrific. According to the History channel, one could lay down to sleep a healthy person, and be dead by morning. Poet and writer Boccaccio wrote, “the mere touching of the clothes appeared itself to communicate the malady to the toucher.” The Black Death was indiscriminate and efficient. The streets were lined with corpses of the fallen, family members fled the homes of plague victims, and mass graves were dug to accommodate the piles of corpses.

And out of the rising smoke of pyres and treading lightly over the fallen stepped a creature with the face of a bird beneath a wide-brimmed black hat and cloak that came to gloved hands and trailed the feet.

The Plague Doctors

Though long-since debunked, The Plague Doctors were not considered harbingers of doom during the Black Plague. They were revered, respected, and admired for their courage. For many they were a symbol of hope. It is through science that we discover that they were perhaps more harmful than helpful.

Standing in a camp site, Jeremy cuts an impressive figure in his black leather hat, cloak, and bird face mask. He is not holding his cane in this picture.
Jeremy Shoemaker dressed as a plague doctor for The Texas Renaissance Festival in Magnolia, Texas. How many people can say they have a fairly recent picture of a plague doctor?

In medieval times, it was believed that disease was transmitted in the air, a school of thought called miasma theory, which states that air smelling foul due to decay also carried disease, and that by purifying the air and making it smell good, one could dispel the diseased air. This lead to the bird-like beak of the plague mask, which was far from the nose of the wearer and stuffed with perfumes and herbs to purify the air the plague doctor breathed. Unfortunately, that was useless. We now know that illness and disease are spread by germs. Their black oilcloth cloaks that were worn under the mask, hat, and gloves were perhaps far more useful. However, it has been surmised that the disease was spread even if one touched the clothes of the infected. The plague doctors moved among plague victims freely, though they often prodded them with a stick to avoid contact. They truly were doctors–well some of them. Others were hack doctors hoping to make a little coin. Many were looking for a cure, but with every victim they came into contact with, they carried the contagion with them on their clothes. And as there was no treatment that worked, they often simply helped their victims into the grave. A common joke at the Renaissance Festival my friend attended was to ask for a picture, then flee the scene, afraid to catch the plague. Others took pictures from a distance. They did not want to bother him, but we joked that they were afraid he was bringing the plague with him. From a historical standpoint, that’s not even remotely funny.

Two plague doctors stand over a fire of burning bodies.
Did someone call a doctor?… No?

Folk Traditions of Poveglia

There are two very persistent tales of Poveglia.

The first is the Plague quarantine. Poveglia is situated right in the Venetian lagoon. It had formerly been an abbey or convent, and so it was equipped with a church and outbuildings to serve as a quarantine. Plague doctors would take shiploads of plague victims out to the island to keep them away from the populace. Unfortunately, the Plague killed so quickly that victims who were supposedly shipped out never returned. If the urban legend is to be believed, there were over 160,000 people buried or burned in plague pits (mass graves) on Povegelia.

The second tale is that of the doctor at the sanitarium. In real life, Poveglia’s structures were converted into an asylum. There, it is said, that the dark energy and spirits of the damned drove the doctor who worked there mad. He began lobotomizing and torturing the patients that came into his care, adding to the blood spilled on the island.

Let that fire your imagination for a bit.

Deep in the ruins of Poveglia appears to be some round apperature leading into a chamber. Rumor has it this is the crematoria of the mad doctor.
Part of the ruins of Poveglia island’s asylum and outbuildings.

It is rumored around the world that no sane Italian will set foot on Poveglia, and that ghost hunters have brought back poundage of definitive proof of supernatural activity on the island. Rumor also has it that those brave souls who dare enter the island at night never return.

But how true is any of this?

For Italian-born film director Emanuele Mengotti, the island of Poveglia proved to be a constant source of wonder. Growing up on the island closest to Poveglia, Emanuele was always full of curiosity regarding its dark legends.

“I have to say that to me, more than haunted, I felt attracted to that island since I was a kid with my parents,” he said in an interview, “I used to go there and my dad, telling me ghost stories about it, and it was very exciting for me!”

Contrary to the rumor that no Italians will visit the island, Emanuele has made many trips to the island.

“I loved to spend my time there and explore the island, sometimes even by myself! I was always getting lost and having to find my way back.”

A hallway in what is ostensibly one of the hospital buildings on the island, now fallen to ruins. Vines and shrubbery covers the left wall, and parts of the celing and windows have caved in.
Nature seems to be reclaiming Poveglia, wiping the stain of man from its face.

Drawing on this inspiration, Emanuele set out to create a stunning piece of cinema that at once inspired thrilling terror while exploring the old legends of Poveglia and the plague doctors who have gained the reputation of heralds of doom rather than benevolent rescuers. Emanuele is reinventing a vision of Italy and Poveglia through the lens of one who has walked where others dare not tread, though he does keep the pragmatic mindset of a local expert.

A man dressed in tall hat and white plague doctor mask stands in the waves on the coast, a strange vision indeed.
A still image from the concept preview of Emanuele Mengotti’s film The Plague Doctor.

“Unfortunately the info that you can find on the web are wrong. The interesting thing is that we are witnessing the origin of a Legend…twenty years ago the island was so different. You were still able to find old books–now its just ruins!”

According to historical accounts, that Emanuele was kind enough to confirm for me, Poveglia once served as a small quarantine base for ships bearing confirmed cases of the Black Plague. In the early twentieth century, some of the small buildings were re-purposed into a mental health facility, and it was again used sometimes as a quarantine for plague victims. There was a section meant for the mentally ill, but no mad doctor.

Still, the dark atmosphere and pervading sense of dread persists regarding Poveglia. It is this dark energy that Emanuele hopes to capitalize on as he brings his film to life. Emanuele says that many people still do believe the island to be haunted with the ghosts of plague victims. He says the atmosphere of the island is “creepy” and that it is, in fact, abandoned. Like many of us who are enamored of their own homeland, Emanuele is comfortable both with the historical facts of Poveglia and with the dark legends that fuel his imagination.

Conclusion

Urban legends may not be the modern equivalent of folktales, but they spread roughly in the same way and may sometimes take their sources from historical fact or popular culture. In the case of the Italian island of Poveglia, the remnants of the Black Death frighten and wrap the unwary tourist in a web of Romanticism and gruesome flights of fancy. Like the Alamo here in Texas, there are two sides to the same story. One just happens to be significantly more interesting than the other. Frankly I’d rather dance a jig with the ghosts of Travis, Bowie, and Crockett at the Alamo than walk among the restless spirits of 160,000 plague victims, but it seems history would have us recognize that Travis and Bowie probably don’t haunt the Alamo anymore than the rampant poltergeist of a mad doctor haunts Poveglia. Legend has it that all 113 men died at the Alamo. History says prisoners were taken, including Crockett, since he was a congressman, and therefore a political time bomb. Why listen to history books when the tales of death and destruction during the Black Plague are far more entertaining?

It is the legend and myth of a place that will stay with you long after you get home and take off your bauta mask or coonskin cap. Myth, legend, and folktale. Don’t care how many times Emanuele Mengotti may say the place is only creepy, you won’t catch me out on that island anywhere near dark.

 

African Folk Traditions, Ethnic Stigma, and Taboo

THe word "Taboo" written in block seriph letters across the open ocean at night, a common motif for the series.
Official logo for the FX Network television series, Taboo.

Hello, Constant Followers and welcome to #FolkloreThursday, the Dark Corners off-shoot of the weekly event started by the wonderful people at Folklore Thursday. Folklore Thursday was originally started to celebrate folklore and folks stories from around the world.

Folklore can be defined as, “a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

From what I learned in my brief study of folklore in college, this usually means that folk traditions are passed by word of mouth. Other folk traditions carried out in a given setting include attire, methods of construction, myth cycles, language (sometimes complicated by dialect), heroic figures, and cult religions not controlled directly by one of the primary religious influences: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

This Folklore Thursday is taking a dark turn as we delve into the rich history of African religious and folk traditions, though we will then turn our attention to the Western stigmatization of pagan cults through the lens of the new FX television series, Taboo.

 West African Voudo and Juju, and Ashanti Obeah

Voudo and Juju

I’m keeping to the Western or Gold Coast for the purposes of exploring the major folk traditions of the Africans who were captured and sold into slavery during the Atlantic Slave Trade, as these are the ones who were most likely to be encountered by Western Culture, and whose magic is most closely associated with the television show, Taboo.

Voudo was largely practiced on the Gold Coast among tribes that belonged to what we now call Nigeria and Ghana. Voudo came to the United States through the slaves traded into the Carribean first–Haiti and Jamaia. It was later carried to Louisiana,the Carolinas, and Virginia, and is now unlovingly referred to as Voudon or Voodoo. However, Voudo does not always have the haunting and evil repugnance assigned to it by Christian slave owners of the Antebellum South. Voudo refers to the monotheistic religion that stems from Mesopotamian traditions centering around a single Creator with two aspects, the moon (female) and the sun (male) along with a pantheon of lesser spirits (Loas).

Voudo worshipers believe the gods of Voudo appear in their every day lives, and that pleasing the gods with small rituals will ensure health and prosperity. Though the manifestations of the Loas can sometimes occur, it is only under certain ceremonial circumstances along with the necessary offerings. Author Gail Z. Martin explores Voudon traditions among the Gullah people of Charleston, South Carolina in her Deadly Curiosities novels, Deadly Curiosities and Vendetta.

There are evil or dangerous spirits among the Loas, particularly the Guédé family headed by Baron Samedi, or “Saturday”, the Evil Doer. This group of Loas is closely associated with the dead. Baron Samedi can be ritualistically summoned with proper offerings of tobacco and rum.

Baron Samedi stands in what appears to be a Louisiana Graveyard, standing with his traditional staff and top hat, smoking a cigar. He has a boa draped across his shoulders.
Cosplayer Rick Lacour depicting the dangerous Haitian and Creole Loa Spirit, Baron Samedi, who is the traditional Loa of the Dead, and head of the Guédé family Loa, part of the overall Voudo pantheon. Photo by Matt Barnes.

Juju is often mistaken for Voudo, but the two words are not interchangeable. While Voudon worshipers believe in a spiritual connection to the gods and Loas that can be accessed through ceremony and offerings, Juju is the practice that binds or forms the pact, or agreement, enforcing compliance. The witch who practices good or bad juju can bind spirits and elements to amulets and talismans for use for against others. This is where the image of the Voodoo doll comes from, though it is in fact not at all related to Voudo.

Ashanti Obeah

It is the from the Obeah traditions that Southern white plantation owners came to fear the power of African magic.

Obeah is still commonly practiced among Western Africans and their descendants. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of Western Africa were of the Akan ethnicity that formed the Ashanti state, Asanteman, and were the geographical neighbors to the Dahomey and Fon tribes that went on to become the caretakers of Vodou in the Caribbean and Gulf territories of the United States. According to Obeah Rituals, the Ashanti of what is now called Ghana were some of the only Africans to successfully repel British occupation.

Obeah and Voudo are fairly similar. The practice of Obeah is second part of the two-part magic practiced by the Ashanti on the Gold Coast, and then later among the Jamaicans and Gullah practitioners of the Carolinas. The first part is an herb-based medicinal practice. Among the Gullah and in Jamaica, these are sometimes called “Root Workers”. It was purely for treating bodily ailments.

An African-looking man squats before a thatch hut. Though African in appearance, this photo was more than likley taken in the Carribean islands, where many Gold Coast Africans were sold as slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade.
An Obeahman, sometimes called a “Root Worker” by Carribeans and the Gullah practitioners of South Carolina. Photo by Vlad Sokhln.

Obeah targets the spirit of the person. The Obayifo worked to heal spiritual wounds and ailments inflicted by witchcraft. The Obayifo traditionally had access to two spirits, one evil, and one neutral. Failure of the Obayifo to stay vigilant could result in the complete takeover of his body, which would require cleansing by another Obeah man.

But the Obayifo has a darker side to it. Among the Ashanti, an Obayifo can make pacts with the spirits, including the Sasabonsam, or Asabonsam, an evil spirit that was commonly connected to the Obayifo. This association has given rise to the belief among scholars and folklorists that the Obayifo is the root of the legend of the vampire. Several of the depictions I discovered included a creature who could hang upside down. According to Scribol, the creature was said to have wings that could be as wide as twenty feet. Other depictions include an simian type creature, like the one below from deviantARTist Darrel Tan.

Two clearly African warriors are stalked by the Asabonsan vampire, a creature who could hang upside down from a tree buy it's feet and fed off the blood of the living. It is unclear whether or not the creature was supposed to resemble a simian creature, or if this is a common trope assigned by Western folklorists.
A deviantART depcition of Asabonsam, the evil spirit that may have given rise to the legend of the vampire, most closely associated with the Ashanti witch, the Obayifo, who could form pacts with this spirit. Art by Darrel Tan.

According to  John L. Vellutini, author of the Journal of Vampirology, the Ashanti Obayifo (whose name is sometimes synonymous with the Sasabosnam or Asasabonsam), shares many similarities to the European vampire, though the literal vampire is not often found in African tradition. It was common among white slave owners to free Obeah men that were enslaved to keep them from practicing their black magic against the slave owners who bought them.

Other African Magic Systems

Witchcraft takes on many forms in African folk traditions, varies from tribe to tribe, and seems to have a very definite gender designation. For example, an old anthropology paper draws comparisons between the Nupe and Gwari tribes and their adherence to witchcraft, with women always as the witches (gacic), and the male possessing the power to see and deal with witches (eshe). Some central tribes believe that the witch lays in the belly of a person and controls their actions. The Zulu and Bantu use “witch smellers”, and they are always women.

But it is perhaps the Obeah from the Ashanti on the Gold Coast that loaned some of their witchs’ evil intent to the one “sworn to do very foolish things” in FX’s new television show, Taboo.

But first, a quick primer on British occupation.

What British Occupation Meant at the Close of the Eighteenth Century

It’s important to start off a comparison to Western pop cultural appropriation of African culture with the hefty reminder that much of what Western Civilization considered “magic” in the eighteenth century stems from the heavy stigmatization of pagan religions, though not just African religions. It is also important to note that religious and magical traditions among African slaves was actively suppressed. Not only did it further marginalize the already enslaved black people under British rule, but it can also be surmised that suppression also prevented the kind of fear that spread throughout the Colonies and Britain before the Enlightenment and that resulted in the European witch hunts. Not to mention that there was indeed a superstitious streak among white slave owners. If I had been a slave owner, I’d probably be a little afraid of the resentment that stemmed from enslavement that might drive a person to witchcraft.

In a grossly oversimplified reduction, by the end of the eighteenth century, the British empire was well on its way to colonizing much of the globe. The new television sensation, Taboo, opens on the story of James Delaney, who left home in 1800 on a purchased commission in the widely prosperous monopoly, the Honorable East India Company. This colonization, and the rape of the cultures unfortunate enough to fall under British occupation, came with a lovely Conversion to the Christianity best favored by the monarch of the time. In the year of our Lord 1802, when James Delaney sets out for Africa, that is King George III, who lost the Revolutionary War to the disloyal British colonists in New England in 1783, and who practiced Protestantism through the Church of England (Anglican church), which kept up a network of churches known as the Anglican Communion throughout the British colonies–with possibly the exception of the US. By 1814, when James Delaney returns to England under George III’s prince regent, George IV, the 15 United States were not doing anything England was doing.

Those who could not be converted spiritually where often converted permanently by way of an unmarked grave. Only those who converted served any purpose to the Crown. This was no exception to the Western African merchants who were only too happy to sell their native traditions out for a cut of the profits in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Some Representations of African Magic in Western Art

Magic from the Dark Continent has been a source of fear and confusion for centuries. There are two references to African black magic in Western culture that I can name off the top of my head.

The first is not actually Western. The OVA adaptation of Kota Hirano’s Hellsing originally included the ultimate villain of season one as a magician from the Dark Continent, Incognito.

Incognito, the African Vampire, confronts the English vampire Alucard in the Tower of London. He holds a machine gun pointed at Alucard, straps and gold chains hang from his naked, tatooed body.
The sexless demon or vampire Incognito is clearly modeled after the Ashanti Sasabonsam. Here he holds a machine gun full of depleted uranium shells. Alcuard unlovingly makes fun of his “magic from the Dark Continent” as “quaint”. Full images of Incognito also show warped legs, as if he might be able to hang from a tree. On the backdrop of London in this anime, this is incredibly racist.

This plot line was never followed through, as it derailed too far from Hirano’s original plot involving the rise of a Fourth Reich, not to mention the fact that it involved a very “colonized” view of Africans. The fact that this anime was set in England did not help matters. Hirano was a miserable writer at best, but one thing he did manage to get right is that the England’s natural enemy was not Africa, but rather Germany.

Another example of the biased representation of African folk traditions comes from the Father of Contemporary Horror, Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Lovecraft had no love, pun intended, for immigrants of any kind. He had even less love for the people of color he was forced to live with in Brooklyn while in exile following the failure of his marriage to Sonia Greene. Lovecraft had zero problems lashing out at those immigrants he despised in several stories, though the one most closely associated with African folk traditions is “The Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn.”

In Lovecraft’s story, Arthur Jermyn is the descendant of the decadent line of Jermyn, whose great grandfather had ventured into Africa and taken a strange wife that no one had ever seen from a tribe who seemed to have some strange obsession with an ape princess–Lovecraft was indelicate at best. It is discovered that Jermyn is related to this ape princess, who was mummified and brought to England for him. When he discovers the unwholesome truth of his bloodline, he douses himself in oil and sets himself on fire.

Though not a comprehensive list, this is definitely a pair of examples that best illustrate the overall stigma associated with anything that has come from Africa. Of course, it is much easier for white colonists to enslave blacks if they are first dehumanized and stripped of dignity, even in their religious beliefs. It is this dehumanization that manifests in the absolute hatred and terror that strides on confident legs through London in the early nineteenth century. His name is James Delaney.

Western Stigma: African and Native American Traditions in Taboo

Tom Hardy wearing a suit and hat in the style of Regency England. He is white and ashy, with crackeds in his face paint, and he has a red triangle down one cheek. "Taboo" runs down the image long-ways.
Tom Hardy stars in the FX television series, Taboo.

H. P. Lovecraft says that “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Naturally the British and Westerners Civilization as a whole were wary of anything they could not easily and quickly understand. Like the Borg, it was easier for the Empire to assimilate first and ask questions later. I’ll touch on how the empire more than likely used the folklore of the African people to dehumanize them and make it easier to enslave them in my review of Taboo at the end of the series, but right now I want to focus on the stigma surrounding James Delaney.

There are two notable points of disgust regarding James Delaney’s reception by the East India Company and his own relatives: unbeknownst to most, Delaney is half Native American; James Delaney spent a great deal of time in Africa. According to the social norms of Regency England, neither of things are good.

The first point to pick apart is the Native American lineage. Delaney’s mother was bought from the Nootka tribe of Vancouver Island. I’ll get to the importance of this particular setting in my full review, but for now, it is important to remember that in the second episode, Delaney’s mother was insane and committed to Bedlam. No word yet on how this will be further treated in the show, but the trope of mixed-race children going or being born half-insane or fully-insane is not new territory. Author Larry McMurtry often employed villains and madmen and madwomen of mixed-race or racial ambiguity, a sort of stab at a perverse Manifest Destiny that white men are the only thing capable of stabilizing the Western Frontier.

An Indian man, a Comanche, sits in a baren yard. H wears blue coton and has long hair. He is Blue Duck, son of Buffalo Hump. He spread terror across the Great Plains of Texas in Lonesome Dove. Here he is depicted in the prequel, Comanche Moon.
Blue Duck is the son of the Commanche war chief, Buffalo Hump. In the Lonesome Dove saga, he spreads terror and mayhem across the Plains. His mother was Mexican. He is one of the several examples of insanity or madness among mixed race characters in Larry McMurtry’s novels. This is a still from the film adaptation of Comanche Moon.

Where Taboo derails from this norm is the fact that though considered mad by many, Delaney is not insane. Director Anders Engstrom and Kristoffer Nyholm and writers Tom Hardy, Edward Hardy, and Steven Knight take care to differentiate Delaney’s cruel nature, hardened soul, and worldly knowledge from true insanity, unlike writer Larry McMurtry of the 1990s, for whom most of his mixed race characters were cut and dry and possessed no redeemable qualities.

The second point: James Delaney’s venture into Africa.

Ventures into Africa were ill advised and dangerous in Regency England and her Empire, as well as highly stigmatized. Trade with Africa was limited to Egypt and slave trading. Only the insane traveled into Africa. Taboo it set in 1814. Real exposure of the African interior did not begin until 1856, when Sir Richard Francis Burton began his many dangerous expeditions to Mecca and the African lakes that brought renewed sense of wonder and fancy to a largely ethnocentric English market. Sir Richard nearly died in Africa, which won the continent no points.

What is Really Taboo about James Delaney?

Though Delaney’s time in Africa isn’t the only taboo featured in the show, his character is largely fueled by the events leading to his return to England.

Rumors fly of unholy rituals performed with powers conferred on Delaney during his time in Africa, which it seems the East India Company was at least aware of. Word of Delaney’s secret doings in Africa traveled annoyingly fast in Regency London. A madman, Old Delaney, standing on the banks of the foreshore of the Thames calling to his son in Africa is bound to stir up gossip. Delaney’s half sister accuses him of eating flesh. Delaney has little interest in confirming or denying any of it.

The accusations of his eating flesh no doubt stem from the folk traditions of the Gold Coast who claimed the creature Asabonsam stalked the woods. Knowing a little of African folk traditions, it’s easy to see where some of the images from Taboo have their source. At the end of Episode 2, we see Delaney savagely rip out the throat of the Malaysian assassin sent to kill him with his teeth, validating accusations from Zilpha that her half-brother ate flesh in Africa (this is the half-sister that is also the other reason why this show is called Taboo). Though it is unclear where this will lead in the show, it is not too hard to imagine that Delaney embodying some version of Sasabonsam.

Tom Hardy is naked and standing in the middle of a shallow stream. He holds a spear. His body is tattooed.
Tom Hardy stalks the jungles of Africa. Notice the similarities to James Delaney’s tattoos and Incognito’s.

We can see that Delaney’s behavior is a sort of backwards hegemony, in which he has been driven to a hatred of half of his own lineage, the white Anglican, by a deep-seated guilt and rage that comes from the treatment of the people he becomes kindred to, and from being mixed-race himself. He embraces the African traditions and turns his black hatred on England, possibly to avenge the people he has seen enslaved, and possibly to avenge his mother, a purchased Native American in exchange for trading rights in the Nootka Sound.

The second episode also seems to suggest that Delaney’s close identification with the African tribes he mingled with is fueling an incredible sense of guilt and obligation, especially towards those slaves who were lost on the slave ship he was sailing on, bound for Antigua and the US, upon which he ostensibly died. We see this in episode two as Delaney, tattooed, sweating, his nerves rattling, possibly with what we call PTSD, uses a ritual to cleanse the hold of a ship he has purchased that formerly transported slaves.

James Delaney, played by Tom Hardy, squats naked in the hull of his ship by lantern light. His tattoos are clearly visible, and he is visibly upset. He has just finished carving a rooster into the hull of the ship in a ritual.
James Delaney huddles in the hull of his newly acquired ship after he cleanses it and performs rituals, ostensibly for those who had been carried as slaves on the ship.

We’ll be able to see in practice that the show’s writers knew that Delaney’s time in Africa would have impaired his judgement by Western Standards. Delaney’s time in Africa is half of the resentment from everyone associated with the Delaney Trading Company, inherited by testate will and by the laws of primogeniture in England. In addition to whatever supernatural powers Delaney possesses as a result of his time in Africa, the Eighteenth-Century implications of what he is are much more mundane. Rumors that he ate flesh further discredit him in the eyes of British society and in the eyes of the organization hoping to take what is rightfully the property of the Delaney bloodline.

I wonder what will happen when the general public is made aware that he is also half Native American…

Conclusion

Though not all African traditions are steeped in blood, it is easy to see how the East India Company and Western slave owners latched onto the darker traditions of the Africans they enslaved. Angry and in pain, it is no wonder that perhaps some of those trafficked into the British Colonies turned to their darker spirits to aid them against the whites that did them harm. Thanks to the Atlantic Slave Trade, some of those dark traditions now form part of the overall African folk traditions of the Gulf Coast and Antebellum South of the United States, many of which persist into the Twentieth Century. The new television show on FX Network, Taboo, capitalizes on some of those dark traditions that circulated in back-room rumor and parlor gossip. The popularity of shows like Taboo illustrate that we as a Western society are still drawn to the strange and unfamiliar, as horrifying as it may be.

I will conduct a detailed post-colonial viewing of Taboo in my review following the close of the first season.

TL;DR: African folk traditions are rich and abundant and vary from tribe to tribe, and some of those traditions made it all the way to the United States during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Also watch Taboo on FX on Tuesdays at 10pm Eastern.

Walking the Moonbeam Roads: Review of Nightmare’s Realm

Since the dawn of sentient humans, we have been obsessed with dreams.

We are perhaps the only beings in the known universe with the capability to question and interpret our dreams. Mankind searches for itself behind closed eyes, casting probes out into the expanding and contracting multiverse of infinite possibilities, asking questions we are not even aware we’re looking for answers to. We have sought deep within our own subconscious to uncover hidden truths presented to us in flashes of color, barely-remembered feelings, and alien vistas. No dream is perhaps more highly interpreted and picked apart than one’s nightmares. It is in nightmares that we run from our pasts, pursue our own self-punishment, and search for our place in the infinite cosmos.

Some of the greatest horror authors have been inspired by the snatches of mystery and half-understood disquiet following them during the wakeful day that gives way to oppressive treks through nighted forests. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was plagued by night terrors throughout his youth, and many of his characters dream strange things themselves. Fantasy and Speculative Fiction author Michael Moorcock wrote of Prince Elric, who travels the multiverse on the moonbeam roads and visits with demons on the dream couches of decadent Melnibone.

And now a new class of writers of the weird explore the depth of their psyches in the latest compilation by Dark Regions Press, Nightmare’s Realm.

A Review

A sickly green foreground mist envelopes two nightmarish figures. One is a female with a veil half covering her face. The other is a death-like creature with the exposed skull of a bovine. They both wear red and black.
Cover art for Nightmare’s Realm by Dark Regions Press, featuring stories from award winning authors and edited by S.T. Joshi

Nightmare’s Realm itself is well assembled, and there is an impressive A-list of authors including Ramsey Campbell, Nancy Kilpatrick (whom I’ve met–she’s a lovely lady), and Caitlin R. Kiernan, as well as an award-winning lineup of fiction writers who have stepped out of the waking world to bring us this talent-fueled, fast-paced, eclectic read, and there is no better way to kick off the compilation than with an introduction by editor, S.T. Joshi, the career scholar of the weird tale, as well as a poem by Joshi’s chief subject, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “To A Dreamer”.

The editors at Dark Regions Press have not only presented a masterful compilation, but they have successfully curated a collection of stories that tackles both the practical nature of dreams, specifically nightmares, and embraces the speculative and the weird tale in its purest form.

Sanity Needs Not Apply

One of my favorite aspects of Nightmare’s Realm is how many stories use the most common tropes of nightmare worlds to rob their characters of agency. In dreams, especially nightmares, we rarely have control over our own actions. From the very first story, “The Dreamed” by Ramsey Campbell, we see not only an example of the speculative or weird tale, but also the first example of lack of agency in a dream, in which the main character is trapped at a hotel in Greece that consists only of a travel agency, a single room, and a few restaurants. The author emphasizes an aspect of dreaming that I have often experienced myself: the feeling that I can’t open my eyes. I can see, and I can know what’s happening around me, but it’s as if my eyes are shut and I can’t move them. Campbell illustrates this perfectly while ratcheting up the tension to truly frighten the reader. It’s a great step off on the right foot.

Another of my favorites that perfectly sums up a dream scenario is the last story of the anthology, “An Actor’s Nightmare” by Reggie Oliver, in which the identity of an actor is fully subsumed in a coma. In this story the most impressive aspect is that everything is huge. The opera house is massive with floor upon floor of dressing rooms, wings upon wings of stage, row upon row up on eave upon eave of boxes and seats. I worked in restaurants for twelve years. There are still times that I dream I’m selling Greek food (yes, Greek food) in a Chinese restaurant (the one I worked in, but before it was remodeled, the way I remember it as a child) that was the size of an airport, where I can’t find my tables.

Death and Grief

Several of the stories deal with how a nightmare seems to represent trauma. Though not pure psychoanalysis, the nightmare tales dealing with trauma and death take a very philosophical tone. Nancy Kilpatrick’s story seems to deal with Frued’s theory of the underlying wish, in which the meaning of the dream can be interpreted as a subconscious wish for some sort of outcome. In Kilpatrick’s story, the narrator spends time with the first of this anthology’s many useless therapists (beginning to see not everyone was as fortunate with their therapist as I was) in trying to workout the underlying meaning of the dreams of suicide. Many of the stories operate on Freud’s level of dream interpretation, which speaks to past events rather than Carl Jung’s theory that the subject level dream analysis reveals individual transformations. My favorite of these is “Purging Mom” by Jonathan Thomas, in which the narrator is beset by dreams that his mother is trying to kill him from beyond the grave. Thomas deals with the grief of the son with dreams of the mother as Freud would have dealt with it, with the mother representing the literal mother, and dealing less with the identity of the dreamer, as Jung would have done. “The Wake” by Steve Rasnic Tem also deals with death and grief manifestations in dreams.

Spec Fiction, Sci-Fi, and the Weird Tale

For the philosopher, the multiverse traveler, the dream realms are places of fancy and endless possibilities. Following our dreams, whether they’re pleasant and quaint or a living Hell, leads to enlightenment and growth. Thus it is with the speculative stories of Nightmare’s Realm.

My favorites in the weird tales genre involved delving into the dream realms in search of answers, a seeker looking to alter the events of their lives…or to just get some damn sleep. “Sleep Hygiene” by Gemma Files, “In the City of Sharp Edges” by Stephen Woodworth, and “The Art of Memory” by Donald Tyson feature dreamers who venture willingly into their dreams and nightmares, each hoping to conquer their own demons for their own ends, a derailment from the previously discussed aspect of dreams in which the narrator has no control over his or her journey. These narrators take matters into their own hands in a very un-Lovecraftian attempt to regain control of their lives as a whole, though in a very Lovecraftian fashion, this does not always have the intended outcome.

The speculative tales venture far out into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy with stories like “Dreams Downstream” by John Shirley, “Cast Lots” by Richard Gavin, “Dead Letter Office” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and “The Barrier Between” by W. H. Pugmire in which each author explores the nature of dreams through the subject of a dreamscape, not necessarily the dreamer. Other speculative tales examine the “dreamer” through an entirely different lens, such as epilepsy in “The Fifth Stone” by Simon Strantzas. “The City of Sharp Edges” also explores this, as the dreamer is not just a seeker, but also blind.

The most speculative of these stories is at once the essence of Michael Moorcock and a moving tribute piece, “Kafkaesque” by Jason V Brock. This is by far one of my favorite stories of the entire anthology. Fans of David Bowie will recognize the chapter titles as well as the end, and give the obligated nod to the departed Starman, who was perhaps the greatest dreamer of us all.

 Conclusion

When I asked Dark Regions to allow me to read and review an arc for the anthology, I did not dare think they would allow me to lay my eyes on such an exploratory, philosophical compilation. Nightmare’s Realm will ask you to dare to do more than dream as you read these stories. I am proud to have been chosen to preview this wonderful collection. I hope you enjoy Nightmare’s Realm as much as I did. You can purchase a pre-order of Nightmare’s Realm on Dark Regions Press’ official site.