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Sorry, interested readers, but real-life distractions came up, and are going to continue coming up this week. I'll do some recommendations and link round-up toward Halloween.

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In the '70s, there was a strand of rock music that involved spinning pretty elaborate tales with fantasy and sci-fi elements through relatively complex musical evolution. A lot of it wasn't nearly as good as its ambitions, but still, some very interesting work got done, a lot of it now not remembered much at all. Klaatu is one of the bands of that time. This song is from their album Hope, which more or less adds up to a tale of wandering through space:

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Form, meet content. Content, form. You'll get along great.

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 This 1988 film doesn't get enough respect, and I will make a brief pitch for its virtues.

People talk about it, when they talk about it, mostly to refer to two things: the humor, and the Outer Limits-ish revelation and payoff. And these are good things to talk about. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum" is a funny line. The scene where the two lead guys fight over whether one can make the other try on the secret-revealing spectacles is a great bit of satire, taking the conventions of macho action that extra step into the absurd. Lots of good stuff. Likewise, the idea that all our mass media and commercial environment is an alien plot is one of those things that really works at the emotional level. The world of manipulated markets is weird and sometimes alienating, and it's helpful sometimes to run with that.

But it's also true that John Carpenter is both a good observer of the world around him and a genuinely decent human being in a subculture that doesn't make that a reliably rewarding way to live. They Live was made at a time when the official line was that we were well into a wonderful long economic boom and everything would be great now that America was shedding itself of more and more of that silly old liberal safety net stuff, and Carpenter not only noticed that this wasn't true, he put it at the heart of his story. His characters are doing everything right  according to American mythology: working hard, not looking for handouts, keeping themselves as clean and respectable as they can, being respectful to authorities, the whole deal. They can't get work because, in the end, aliens don't care about them, and don't need to because there's plenty of money to be made by milking those not yet run dry.

It turns out that we're all still waiting for the right guy to show up and kick some ass, with or without the bubblegum.

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Thomas Ligotti's short story "Nethescurial" has one of the best closing sentences in English-language horror, right up there with "It was a picture from life!" and "It is the beating of his hideous heart!". It's not long, either. What starts off as a reader's account of an interesting manuscript uncovered in a library turns into...something else. Read the whole thing, courtesy of Thomas Ligotti Online.

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From the Wikipedia entry on Tithonus:

Eos kidnapped Ganymede and Tithonus, both from the royal house of Troy, to be her lovers. The mytheme of the goddess's immortal lover is an archaic one; when a role for Zeus was inserted, a bitter new twist appeared: According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, when Eos asked Zeus for Tithonus to be immortal, she forgot to ask for eternal youth (218-38). Tithonus indeed lived forever, "but when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all, such as once he had in his supple limbs." (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite)

From Lovecraft's "The Whisperer in Darkness":

Just what the real situation was, I could not guess; but common sense told me that the safest thing was to find out as much as possible before arousing anybody. Regaining the hall, I silently closed and latched the living-room door after me; thereby lessening the chances of awakening Noyes. I now cautiously entered the dark study, where I expected to find Akeley, whether asleep or awake, in the great corner chair which was evidently his favorite resting-place. As I advanced, the beams of my flashlight caught the great centre-table, revealing one of the hellish cylinders with sight and hearing machines attached, and with a speech machine standing close by, ready to be connected at any moment. This, I reflected, must be the encased brain I had heard talking during the frightful conference; and for a second I had a perverse impulse to attach the speech machine and see what it would say.

It must, I thought, be conscious of my presence even now; since the sight and hearing attachments could not fail to disclose the rays of my flashlight and the faint creaking of the floor beneath my feet. But in the end I did not dare meddle with the thing. I idly saw that it was the fresh shiny cylinder with Akeley’s name on it, which I had noticed on the shelf earlier in the evening and which my host had told me not to bother. Looking back at that moment, I can only regret my timidity and wish that I had boldly caused the apparatus to speak. God knows what mysteries and horrible doubts and questions of identity it might have cleared up! But then, it may be merciful that I let it alone.
In the latter story, these jars do indeed hold human brains, which can see and hear when connected to sensory apparatus, and can speak when connected to voice synthesizers...which means that it's easy to let one sense the world but unable to respond to it, and also to lock it away within its own thoughts, indefinitely.

For some reason these motifs of the trapped, isolated mind have always held a particular horror for me,

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One of the most perfect songs I know about despair, Alan Parsons Project's "Oh Life". When I comment on my down dark times, the way they sing "there must be more" here is part of my internal soundtrack:

And one of the first songs to strike me as implying a genuine horror story, Berlin's "Masquerade":

I'm interested to find, as I look it up, that the album this song is on came out in 1982, meaning I was 16 when I first heard it. In my memory I'm about three years younger than that and it plays a larger, more formative role in shaping my love of and tastes in horror.
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Arlington Road is one of those movies I can't watch anymore, because of how the world has changed. Pennington made it in 1999; I saw it in 2002, after seeing and being delighted by The Mothman Prophecies, which will probably get an entry of its own this month. This one is the story of an expert in domestic terrorism, a well-meaning and compassionate man set up by ruthless schemers, and in the end evil triumphs. That's a spoiler of sorts, but it's one I have no compunction about—I'd feel genuinely bad inviting anyone to see it without the chance to say "No, thanks, I would like to skip that punch in the gut right now." It's a truly first-rate punch in the gut, one of the best I know about what it's like to be caught in the web of calculated terrorism. It's just that, well, it's way too close to being the story of America this decade.

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This is a six-book series you may well never have heard of. Ambient, the first one, is a pretty straightforward cyberpunk-ish story of life in an economically collapsed US dominated by a few mega-corporations. Think of the very worst of the Great Depression in the US and Weimar Germany, magnify it, institutionalize it, throw in a lot of mutagens with the pollution, and you've pretty much got Ambient. It was noteworthy for there being a strongly gnostic-flavored counter-cultural religion among some outcast sub-communities, and a payoff involving the contents of the personal vault of Old Man Dryden that's just absolutely glorious. Half of the urban legendry of the latter 20th century has a place in there somewhere.

Things got more distinctive in Terraplane, the second book, set some years later. It brings in a second parallel world, ninety years behind the first and in some ways even worse off, with things like slavery never having been abolished in that version of the US. And it's got glorious language:

"Why aren't we knived?" Jake asked, shaking his contagion-free-stamped dinner packet. In his, as in ours, was but a napkin, spoon and fork with rounded tines. Said cutlery looked metal, felt plastic; was some unwarranted alliance of both, like that solid used in rocket-part production which always failed when most essentialed.

"Too handy in event of nondinner maneuvers," said Skuratov.

Keeping that up consistently is a tour de force all in its own right. Using it to tell a moving, rich story about people in two ruined societies trying to do something for the betterment of both is impressive as all get-out.

The third book, Heathern, is a chronological step backward, focusing on the life of the woman revered as a latter-day figure of divine mercy by the neo-gnostics of Ambient. It turns out...they were right. This isn't a hard-science-fiction sort of world at all, but one in which there really is a redemptive spirit that really is locked outside of the dark iron prison of the world, trying and failing to save us. The fourth, Elvissey, builds on that cosmological foundation, with schemers from the first world swiping the Elvis of the second to be a messiah figure of a different sort for them. As Lord Dunsany says in one of his pieces, "The tale is one of those that hath not a happy ending."

The fifth book, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, may be the crown jewel of the lot. It's chronologically the earliest of the series, dealing with the onset of the age of constant crisis which characterizes DryCo and its world thereafter. It's told as the diary of a 12-year-old girl, and it's heartbreaking. She starts off life with no more worries than any child of successful professionals could expect to have, and by the end, it's all been taken away from her. It's one of the most profoundly personal apocalypses I know of.

The sixth book, Going Going Gone, is that rare beast, an actual climax and conclusion to the series which brings together all the plot threads left lying around and some hooks most readers won't have realized were any such thing. (Certainly I was caught off-guard repeatedly.) Both worlds are breaking down in their various ways, and time is short in which to do something...and something is done. It's a difficult redemption, but one that does justice to all that's come before.

Now, these are sold as science fiction and can certainly be read that way. (Yes, some people insist that any sf with religious truths other than rigorous atheism isn't really sf. These people are tiresome and shall not be given a fair hearing.) But they can be read as well as horror, since they are rich in dread, the unknown and unknowable, savagery, terror, the struggle to survive, all the emotions that go into horror. They are really, really worth your time.

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This little low-budget jewel does a lot of things right, and one of them is a matter of semiotics. Semiotics is the study of signs, broadly speaking: anything where there's a signifier (like the words "this leaf") and a signified (like this leaf I want you to see). It's the discipline devoted to symbols and signals. One of the ways horror stories often fail is that there's inconsistency at the semiotic level—what we're told is good, bad, tough, easy, whatever doesn't seem to match up with what the characters actually do or how the world acts around them. Threats get over-sold or under-sold or just plain misrepresented, and so things don't hang together. The real beauty of The Terminator includes this simple fact. When Sgt. Reese says the famous line...

Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

...he's telling the precise truth. That is an accurate description of the Terminator, and we see each clause of that declaration in action, right up until it's literally smashed to pieces. Cameron and co-writer Gail Ann Hurd deliver precisely what they promise. That's fairly rare in film making, and part of what makes the chills in this movie still work, decades and orders of magnitude in budgeting later.

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I'm going to try to post a recommendation for something good in horror—prose, movie, whatever—each day in October, with a brief comment about something distinctive in it.

"The Masque of the Red Death" is one of Poe's more famous stories, and with good reason. It really lives up to his dictum that everything in a short story should build toward a single effect. What I want to call attention to today is this particular paragraph:

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes, (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies,) there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before.

That is really, really well-observed. Several people on my friends list have described precisely that reaction to a variety of circumstance just recently, of being affected in ways they wish they wouldn't be and trying to recover to it. Poe doesn't do much in the way of individual characters, but he does people quite well indeed.


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Ceri B.

April 2010

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