Thursday, April 20, 2017

Thank Gods it’s Thor’sday

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

Do you wonder where poetry comes from?
Where we get the songs we sing and the tales we tell?
Do you ever ask yourself how it is that some people can dream great wise beautiful dreams and pass those dreams on as poetry to the world to be song and retold as long as the sun rises and sets, as long as the moon will wax and wane?
Have you ever wondered why some people make beautiful songs and poems and tales?
And some of us do not?
It is a long story and it does no credit to anyone.
There is murder in it and trickery.
Lies and foolishness; seduction and pursuit.
Listen; It began not long after the dawn of time…

–Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology

Hit British writer Neil Gaiman, of novel (prose and graphic), film, and television fame, is an old hand at working with myths and legends from all over the world. His seminal Sandman comic and prose novels Anansi Boys and American Gods (coming to HBO April 30) all imagined gods from every corner of the earth, some famous, some obscure, all trying to make their way in the modern world. His comic series Lucifer and his novel Good Omens (co-written with the late Sir Terry Pratchett) put modern spins on the Judeo-Christian apocrypha.

In honor of the upcoming American Gods TV premiere, I decided to review Gaiman’s take on traditional mythology before his more modernist and revisionist spin of the subject hits the airwaves. In his recent book, Norse Mythology, Gaiman isn’t concerned with updating mythology into new urban fantasy tales. Rather, he steps back from his role as “author” and steps into the role of “storyteller,” putting a bit of his spin on the classic tales of Thor, Loki, Odin, and the other gods and monsters who the peoples of the northern climes would come to know and fear when they strapped on their Viking helmets, boarded their long ships, and took to the seas.

In his introduction, Gaiman acknowledges the ways that the folklore of the Norse people has been distorted and diminished as it came down through the ages. Like many tales from the ancient and medieval world, we only have access to those that were written down and whose texts survived the ravages of time and culture—a small fraction of the great storytelling tradition. Gaiman shares that while Marvel Comics’ “Mighty Thor” enticed him into the local library as a boy to seek out the original Viking myths, he soon discovered that the true myths of the Norsemen resembled, but were markedly distinct from, those of comics which had been shaped by modern creative tastes. This is a timely warning for today’s audience, seeing as “The Mighty Thor” is now a worldwide box office attraction. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins will represent Thor, Loki, and Odin in the popular consciousness for some time to come. Gaiman warns his audience that the Asgard of old wasn’t the gleaming Science Fiction City dreamed up by Jack Kirby, but rather something a little more relatable to a medieval audience. Odin holds court in a great drinking hall, a very fine drinking hall, but not a shiny glass building that looks like an expo center. Thor isn’t the even-tempered, blond, Aryan ubermensch of popular imagination, but rather a ginger bruiser a bit on the thick-headed side. The “heroes” of the stories are just as likely to achieve their aims by treachery and thievery as epic honorable combat (all the more reason to keep a habitual trickster like Loki around).

The individual tales in Norse Mythology are mostly episodic but arranged in an arc covering the origins of certain characters, natural phenomena, artifacts, and monsters, all building up to Ragnarok, the Norse Armageddon in which the enemies of the gods will overwhelm them in battle, destroy the world, and leave a new order in its place. The stories swing back and forth from the melancholy to the humorous—sometimes within the same yarn.

Fittingly enough for sagas that once were told and retold in the humble hovels and great halls of the northlands, Gaiman has released an audiobook of his latest work with himself as narrator. His lively dramatic reading, very reminiscent of the late, great Douglas Adams' audio performances of his own Hitchhiker's Guide series, makes this work the masterpiece that it is. And I think this is my first “I read this—with my ears” review where I would not recommend the prose by itself without the audiobook. That’s not a knock against Gaiman as a master of the written word. God knows (or Odin, Freya, or Thor knows—take your pick), he is a great writer and I sense that some of the more poetical passages and turns of phrase originate with him and not the original texts. But this is a work that is meant to be spoken aloud, much like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The episodic nature that rations the grand saga of the gods into chunks that can be understood across multiple storytelling sessions, and the expository language that reminds the audience who is who (and often who is disguised/shapeshifted into what), both speak to the traditions of oral storytelling. My favorite tale, and the one where Gaiman really shows his chops as a one-man performer is “Freya’s Strange Wedding Night,” a humorous episode falling just short of half an hour and utilizing such comedy mainstays as the Gilligan Cut and men poorly disguised as women. I was struck that our TV sitcom isn’t as new as we imagine it.

So if you want to honor that tradition of oral storytelling, I would highly recommend that you get an audio copy of Norse Mythology and give it a listen, even if you only hear one or two episodes in a sitting. Before we watch Odin as a con man in American Gods or Thor duking it out with the Hulk later this year in Ragnarok, it would be worth your time to dig into the origins of these iconic myths. It’s a far more accessible adaptation to English ears than an opera by Wagner.*

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival, coming to Waltham, Massachusetts on May 13, 2017. Learn more at

*—Editor’s note: the opinions expressed about Wagner’s operas are those of the author and do not represent the views of Nerds who Read or its antediluvian editor.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Superstitious, Cowardly Lot

Batman: Haunted Knight Written by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. Art by Tim Sale.
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Batman and Halloween just make sense together. Certainly Bruce Wayne wasn’t the first, or the last, ultra-rich playboy to fight crime by donning a mask and costume. However his costume isn’t just a mask to conceal his identity or armor to protect his body. His chosen totem, that of the bat, is linked in our culture to the night, the occult, and Halloween. It is part of Batman’s creed that he considers the criminals of Gotham “a superstitious, cowardly lot.” In his more gritty adaptations we see how Batman deploys the imagery of the supernatural, his Dracula-like cape and his pointed ears, which present an almost demonic profile to strike fear into the hearts of hapless henchmen.

Even his most iconic villains look more like people headed to a costume party then on the way to commit a crime: clowns, a dapper penguin in a tuxedo, a sexy cat-woman, and a man bisected between good and evil. And like Halloween itself, this iconography can be tweaked to move along the spectrum toward children or in the other direction toward a mature audience. On one end of the spectrum we have Adam West’s Batman attempting to thwart some ridiculous caper by comedians, on the other end, Christian Bale trying to stop deadly terrorist attacks by a method actor.

So let’s continue our Nerds who Read Halloween series with the graphic novel, Batman: Haunted Knight. I wanted to hire long-time Joker voice actor Mark Hamill to introduce this review in his Joker voice, à la the Crypt Keeper, but my cheap editor won’t pay his fee, so you’ll have to use your imagination:

“Okay, listen up kiddos, the following material requires parental guidance. On the other hand do you know who didn’t have parental guidance? Little Bruce Wayne and look how well-adjusted he turned out. HAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”

Haunted Knight is a collection of three separate standalone stories: “Fears”, “Madness”, and “Ghosts”. Each of these was a Halloween special when authors Loeb and Sale were the creative team on the Legends of the Dark Knight monthly comic. Together the three stories form a sort of concept album, same creative team, same overall tone, but each part distinct.

In the first part, “Fears,” our hero is challenged on two fronts: Batman seeks to bring in the villain Scarecrow and his fear-inducing chemicals, and a beguiling redhead has set her sights on Bruce Wayne at a costume ball. And for those who think they’ve got it figured out just from the premise, this redheaded vixen is not famous man-eating plant-lady Poison Ivy, but rather a more mundane threat to Batman’s crusade: he might find a reason to settle down.

In the second installment, “Madness,” childhood fantasy is warped into adult obsession when the criminal Mad Hatter kidnaps Commissioner Gordon’s young daughter when she is out trick-or-treating, dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland.

The creative team takes some inspiration from Batman director Tim Burton In the final tale, “Ghosts.” They bring Halloween and Christmas together and see what happens. One Halloween night, Bruce Wayne is placed in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as he is tormented by apparitions guiding him through his past, present, and future. Our hero is asked what kind of legacy he wants to leave as Batman and as Bruce Wayne.

Unlike some writer/artist teams, where the artist slavishly attempts to illustrate the purple pulpy prose sent down from the writing department, Loeb and Sale work as a dynamic duo. The text is either sharp dialogue or internal monologue that doesn’t obscure the fine art and panel arrangement. With contributions from colorist Gregory Wright, they weave quite the immersive tale. Loeb and Sale have worked together with Batman before and in their hands certain parts of the Batman iconography are more form than function. Batman has an impossibly long cape that unfurls into bat wings when airborne, yet pools and billows around his ankles like a personal fog bank when he stands still. His rogues gallery, Joker, Scarecrow, and Mad Hatter, are more caricature grotesques then people; the Joker is all toothy grin, the Scarecrow a gangly assortment of rags, and the Hatter a dumpy little man who looks like he walked right out of the Lewis Carroll storybooks. In Loeb and Sale’s excellent crime saga Batman: The Long Halloween and its sequels Dark Justice and Catwoman:When in Rome, the highly stylized character designs of the supervillains stand in stark, probably deliberate contrast to the more believable and grounded character designs of Gotham’s traditional mafia families. But here, that contrast isn’t called for. It’s just Batman and his foes tearing it up, on the spookiest night of the year no less, so bending the laws of reality makes more sense for the Halloween atmosphere. In two stories, “Fear” and “Ghosts,” there are sequences where actual dream logic and imagery is on wonderful display. In “Fear,” a dose of Scarecrow’s fear gas subjects Batman to all kinds of illusionary horrors. As “Ghosts” is directly inspired by A Christmas Carol, Bruce Wayne is whisked magically from his bedchamber to all the different locales and times. At one point, as Bruce walks through the mansion to meet the Ghost of Halloween Present, his pajamas and dressing gown shift and morph until he is wearing his Batman cape and cowl.

As I said, Batman and Halloween make a lot of sense together thematically and this is the creative team to pull off a whole grab bag of tricks and treats that pair this specific character and this specific holiday. I would highly recommend checking out Haunted Knight if given the opportunity. It isn’t heavy on continuity, so even if you're familiar with Batman mainly through TV and film, and the comic books are uncharted territory to you, you'll find it rewarding.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Fahrenheit 10-31

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot.
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

October is Halloween, so I thought I’d kick off the month here at Nerds Who Read with the Ray Bradbury classic The Halloween Tree. It isn’t just a story of the occult, and thereby Halloween-themed. It’s a ghost story of Halloween: an exhumation of the ancient traditions, civilizations, and very primal fears that gave rise to the Dance Macabre and harvest festival that lie just below the surface of Halloween the American Holiday of door-to-door candy collection. Our story begins in small town America. The small town America that is no place in particular and yet so very specific:

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state. There wasn't so much wilderness around you couldn't see the town. But on the other hand there wasn't so much town you couldn't see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across.

In this idealized American town lives of course the most idealized American boy since Huckleberry Finn took his famous raft ride, Joe Pipkin. Pipkin leads a cohort of eight rambunctious boys who are always up for whatever game, adventure, or practical joke a group of twelve-year olds will swear was a good idea at the time.

But this Halloween, the band of brothers is without their fearless leader: Pipkin has fallen seriously ill. Or so they thought: the Trick-or-Treating boys could swear they saw him run into the old, dilapidated, and therefore, surely haunted house with the gnarled, twisted tree in the backyard. A tree from which hang jack-o’-lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Something they have never seen before but can name instantly because it is so self-evidentially…a Halloween Tree.

There they meet the mysterious Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud who reveals that if they do not learn the origins of Halloween and find their friend Pipkin’s wandering soul, they will lose him forever.

The gang (the boys are named but rather interchangeable save for their costumes: Ghost, Witch, Gargoyle, Devil, Ape-Man, Mummy, Skeleton, and Grim Reaper) are whisked away on a magical journey by Moundshroud, chasing the spirit of Pipkin through the ages, learning about the ceremonies, fears, history, and religions that formed the iconography of Halloween as we know it today in America. But at the end of what could possibly be the most engrossing presentation on the cultural anthropology of a holiday, the boys will have to make a bold sacrifice to retrieve their friend.

The common wisdom of drama is that both magic and horror lose their power if the audience sees what’s really going on. So does explaining the origins of the ghosts and goblins of our autumn holiday rob them of their danger and mystique? Not really, since Moundshroud’s thesis statement is that humanity’s contemplation of its own mortality is the root of all these traditions. Behind all the fearsome monsters isn’t a harmless old huckster pulling the strings like the Wizard of Oz, but rather Death itself. That this quest for knowledge is also an attempt to rescue a beloved friend from Death’s clutches raises the stakes and makes the boys acknowledge their own mortality, in a way they never had before, and as an important step into adulthood.

As I mentioned in my review of Lovecraft Country, I find there is something special about having a ghost story read to me. I therefore chose to “read” The Halloween Tree with my ears, via the audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot (yes, the one from Perfect Strangers). Pinchot does an excellent job capturing all at once the ominous Moundshroud, the Norman Rockwell naivete of the boys, and the sometimes lyrical, often purple prose of the narrator.

I would highly recommend seeking out this story during October to get you into the Halloween spirit. In addition to paper, Kindle, and audio versions, there is an animated adaptation from the 90’s that is still generally available commercially and sometimes still gets air time. It features Leonard Nimoy as Moundshroud and Ray Bradbury himself as the narrator. But regardless of which incarnation you choose, this story is for anyone with little boys and ghouls who find it a treat to learn something from scary Halloween tricks.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds Who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Conan the Librarian?

Geek Fitness Inspiration: Literature Edition
By David Mandeix

Today I’d like to discuss the seemingly incongruous idea of nerds and fitness.

Specifically, I’d like to focus on the strange dichotomy that exists wherein nerds are not great physical specimens, but almost every character in their preferred obsession is.

Somewhere back in prehistoric times, around the origins of the term nerd (a brand that I bear proudly, by the way, and have since my youth) came the stereotype of being physically unfit. A nerd was either overweight—due to lack of physical exertion—or underweight—due to lack of physical exertion. In my own case, I landed on the heavy end of the spectrum.

And why was this? Largely because the typical physical activities associated with lean muscle and general good health hold no interest to the common nerd; at least I knew this to be the case for me. Also, those things were difficult, not very exciting, I wasn’t good at them, and I was lazy. This compounded my difficulties in socializing in general, as I shared no interest or aptitude in activities that generally made one popular (see: sports). And could you blame me? #Sorrynotsorry: I thought that lords, swords, and dragons were more exciting than watching a person hit, throw, or run with a sports-ball, and if HBO’s viewership was anything to go by, the number of people who agreed with me was on the rise.

It dawned on me one day that it was profoundly strange to admire my heroes and follow their fantastical adventures without actually having adventures of my own. If these things were so exciting to me, why wasn’t I out there doing them? Thus began a long and arduous journey that blossomed into a love of fitness and physical challenges. I submit myself and my own experiences as the case study. This is partially because I know my own story best, partially because I hope you will find it interesting, but mostly because I am in the process of inflicting my fitness mania on my long-suffering roommate Kerey (known to Nerds who Read readers as the resident expert on all things steampunk).

One day, after dragging him through a particularly tough workout, Kerey put the question to me: “What books or films inspired you to get fit?” It was a valid question; after all, it’s hard to maintain enthusiasm for hard work when you’re not inspired! While there are many books and movies that have gotten me to this point, I’d like to submit to you my top five nerd-fitness motivators:

5. Altered Carbon (Richard Morgan, 2002). A neo-noir cyberpunk novel and a hell of a great read, this book’s hero (anti-hero?) drove home the need for mental toughness, personal grit, and borderline psychotic motivation during his adventures. This is the sort of thing that made me want to go back to the gym the next day, even though my body was in agony. This book will make you want to run that extra mile and do that extra rep. (Disclaimer: It will also make you want whisky and cigarettes, but you’ve got to take the good with the bad).

4. Martin the Warrior (Brian Jacques, 1993). This was the first book I remember staying up all night to read. I couldn’t put it down. I think I was in sixth grade at the time. Gripping story and indomitable heroes, in spite of all the suffering that was heaped upon them. This book probably first instilled in me the admiration of heroes that spit in death’s eye when their backs were to the wall. Also, bonus points because all of the characters are woodland creatures, and when a mouse can inspire you to be badass, that says something.

3. Gates of Fire (Steven Pressfield, 1998) is a 1998 historical novel that recounts the Battle of Thermopylae through the eyes of an auxiliary, but also chronicles the training of the Spartan warriors and their noble battle and sacrifice. In addition to coming into my possession around the same time 300 came out, it paints a vivid picture of the ruthless Spartan training regime; it’s the kind of story that makes you want to heft a spear and shield and engage in a raucous clash of arms. After reading this book, my training relied heavily on a weight vest (Forty pounds was the closest approximation I could get to a hoplite’s armor).

2. Spartacus (Starz, 2010). A spectacular premium cable series in terms of both story line, cinematography, and—let's face it—some extremely good muscle porn. It chronicles the story of the eponymous gladiator, and should have enough violence, intrigue, and historical sentence structure for any nerd. Bonus: it features excellent performances by John Hannah and Lucy Lawless. Lucy, by the way, was 42 at the time of the filming and looks absolutely stunning. The actor playing the main character was 39 and incredibly ripped. Not to mention the (now) 46 year old actor playing Crixus. Just goes to show the lasting benefits of fitness... I challenge anyone to watch this TV show and not want to work out.

1. Conan the Barbarian (books and films). The granddaddy of them all. From Robert E. Howard, to L. Sprague de Camp, to Robert Jordan (yes, in his early days!), I loved loved LOVED the Conan series. Introduced to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie at a formative moment of my youth, but forced to acknowledge that I did not possess the “strength of a great ape,” the “lithe movements of a panther,” or even “well-oiled muscles that moved like snakes under the torchlight,” I determined to acquire these things. Though at the time, my thighs were neither mighty nor steely, Conan was really what made me start putting the hours in at the gym. And is it any surprise? Eighty per cent of Conan’s problems are solved through judicious application of his barbarian physique. Sign me up for Body by Cimmeria.

There are countless other books and movies that inspired or added fuel to my fitness journey (possibly to be covered in another article), but these five make up the core of my motivation to set down the book and pick up the weight. Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t given up books. I still read nightly and use my nerdy obsessions to help drive my fitness goals. If anything, imagining that I’m scaling a Cimmerian cliff or running down a Persian scout makes the exercises a little bit easier to stomach. It is my sincere hope that they can somehow inspire other folks as well!


Friday, September 9, 2016

A Justice League of Their Own

DC Comics: Bombshells, Volumes 1 & 2
Written by Marguerite Bennett with art by Laura Braga, Mirka Andolfo, and other contributors
Graphic Novel Review by Kerey McKenna

Comic books built around selling toys are nothing new, but the genesis of DC Comics’ new series Bombshells was a bit convoluted. In 2013, the company issued a run of collectible statuettes re-imagining iconic DC Heroines like Wonder Woman and Supergirl with character designs inspired by classic pin-ups and Diesel-Punk (the 1930-50’s art deco cousin of Steampunk). These character re-designs were then repurposed as “variant covers” for DC’s run of regular comics for one month (variants being covers that encourage collectors to buy multiple copies of the same comic for the special covers). Now, with Bombshells, DC is building a story around these character re-designs—the women of DC Comics fight in an alternate World War II against the Axis of Evil: Nazi Germany….AND ZOMBIES!

So can a graphic novel series set in the 1940's, seemingly designed to push collectibles and retro cheesecake, provide a good narrative and satisfy the political sensitivities of the 2010's? And what is a 1940’s take on Wonder Woman anyway, given that the character premiered in 1941?

While Wonder Woman’s origin story is almost completely unaltered (the princess of a mystical island of warrior women follows WW2 aviator Steve Trevor back to the outside world to fight the evil Nazis), her iconic outfit is merged with that of another heroine of the 1940’s war effort…Rosie the Riveter. Bombshells (helmed by a mostly female creative team) moves the heroines of the DC Universe into center stage by setting their story in a version of World War II without DC’s male superheroes in the mix. Bombshells works best when it grounds its heroines in the real world contributions of women, whether in theaters of war or on the home front. Batwoman and Batgirl are vigilantes who are also members of the women’s baseball league (immortalized in the film A League of Their Own) that moved into the Major League Baseball diamonds when the men went off to fight. Supergirl and Stargirl are members of the famous Soviet all-women’s volunteer aerial bomber squadron, the Night Witches. When she’s not sinking Nazi submarines with the aid of sea creatures, Mera the Aquawoman entertains sailors in USO-style stage shows.

The first volume is highly episodic with different narrative threads of different heroines becoming involved with the war effort, while Volume 2 draws most of the characters together to repel an undead Blitzkrieg on London. Unlike some other recent “World War II…but with superheroes” series, DC Comics Bombshells doesn’t concern itself much with period details (like the exact date or progress of the war. These details are vague at best and contradictory at worst) or with much of the historical realities of the time and place (intelligence official Amanda Waller, an African American woman, has all the authority she possesses in the modern series Suicide Squad, without any attempt to explain how that would work in segregated America). The creators aren’t worrying about explaining it so don’t think about it too hard yourself.

So how does the series hold up? Well, as far as period pieces go I wouldn’t rate it as high as DC’s Golden Age and New Frontier limited series but Bombshells did exceed my expectations.

The art is vibrant and dynamic and surprisingly very classy despite the “what if our heroines were pin-ups?” premise. I guess this would be the same very fine distinction aficionados of burlesque shows claim separates the experience from “mere strip-clubs.” Most of the costumes don’t have the “painted on” look of modern superhero spandex and the artists mostly avoid the tacky “Snake Spine” or “Escher Girl” poses that contort the female form in painful or impossible ways to present T&A. And I dare say, with the men sidelined or non-existent, the comic may pass the feminist Bechdel Test: “whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man (Wikipedia).” In this case, the only heroines who are in any way defined by relationships to a man would be Wonder Woman (who considers Steve Trevor under her protection) and Harley Quinn (whose obsession with the Joker is fairly central to her character). For others, it doesn’t matter if the men are, in the words of the 1943 hit song, either too young or too old, because they weren’t very interested in the men in the first place.

If there is one area where the-fast-and-loose-with-history attitude falls short it’s on some of the period set dressing. One of the artists (I’m not sure which, due to the large number of contributors) uses modern designs for cars, tanks, and military uniforms. This was disappointing because they put so much thought into the character designs, but then it seemed like they used the first bit of reference material that came up in Google for "Tank" or “Ambulance.” I wouldn’t consider myself even an armchair military historian but even to me the M1-Abrams tank (those used in the Gulf Wars) trundling around Germany as part of the SS Panzer division somehow distracts me from the amazon warrior ripping it apart with her bare hands. Although I must have developed a fetish for historical accuracy in my old age if it’s distracting me from all these scantily clad women tearing up the battlefield.

While this series wouldn’t go on my “must read” list, I think the right audience really can get something out of it. If my friends sending home pictures from Dragon Con over Labor Day Weekend are any indication, a fair number of female cosplayers have jumped at the chance to give a pin-up glam twist to their favorite heroines. And given the grim nature of DC’s film adaptations I’m always keen to boost anything that shows they can actually have fun with these characters.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Strange Fruit and Alien Geometries

Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Book Review by Kerey McKenna

August 20th was the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft, famed Author of Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and other pulp tales of foreboding New England towns where clandestine conspiracies attempt to awaken long-slumbering, cosmic horrors. In honor of Mr. Lovecraft, I sought out a novel with Lovecraftian themes for this week’s review, the latest in my series, “I read this…with my ears.”

My search turned up a mesmerizing new novel, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country. The book puts a novel historical spin on some classic Lovecraft themes but grounds the horrors and dangers in recent American history. I chose the audio book; there is always something unnerving about having a horror story read to you. In addition to serving as third person narrator, Kevin Kenerly does an apt job playing all roles, black, white, young or old, male or female.

Leaving aside H.P.’s break-out star Cthulhu, the iconic slumbering cephalopod, what are the most identifiable themes of Lovecraft’s eerie tales? What local landmarks would signal to a weary, but wary, traveler that they have crossed the border into Lovecraft country? I would posit there are three:

  1. Hostile environments: From the barren arctic poles to rural New England villages that don’t take kindly to outsiders, you get the sense that you are clearly not welcome among these insular, and probably inbred, country folk.
  2. Malevolent Conspiracies: If, despite the icy welcome, one were to make it to the manor house overlooking this odd community, there would be no respite from the strangeness and unease. One might soon discover that the country aristocrats are members of a secret society. A society whose tendrils influence every local authority. And if you come to their attention you may well be the “guest of honor” for a strange ceremony that you may not survive…
  3. Cosmic Insignificance: Dubbed “cosmicism” by H.P. himself, it is the horror experienced by the individual human mind when confronted with the fact that not only is it not the center of the universe, but in the grand scheme of things the struggles and desires of the individual do not matter.

So does Matt Ruff do anything different with these themes than what Stephen King has done many times over? Yes. He acknowledges that here, in America, an entire population had to cross through or even somehow survive and eke out an existence in “Lovecraft Country:” African Americans in the Jim Crow era.

If one’s skin is the “wrong color,” then the wrong turn down a country road at sundown could bring a motorist into a hostile rural town, where they do not take kindly to strangers, and where the police had no power to stop or were in fact in league with a malevolent conspiracy. Figures in white hoods would hold strange ceremonies and sacrifice hapless victims as offerings in a twisted theology. And even if they survived all that, African Americans would be presented with constant evidence that their lives do not matter. Eking out an existence on the margins of mainstream society could be revoked by the majority at any time, and any aspirations the individual might have based on talent and desire would always be barred to them. Cosmic Horror: the intuition that even if one survives the ordeal, the struggle is ultimately meaningless.

Our story is set in 1954 when Atticus Turner, recently returned from service in the Korean War, sets out on a road trip to find his estranged father who disappeared chasing mysterious bits of family lore in the rural and insular community of “Arden, Massachusetts” (as fictional as Lovecraft’s Arkham, Massachusetts). Joining him is an expert on traveling while black, his Uncle George Turner, travel agent and publisher of The Safe Negro’s Travel Guide. “The Guide” is a book for African Americans, cataloging which hotels, motels, campgrounds, and diners serve blacks, as seeking respite at other businesses could result in a door in the face at best and violence at worst. This is actually based on the real world publication of the time, The Negro Motorist Green Book, whose cover read, “Carry this book with you—you may need it.” Also along for the ride is Letitia, a childhood friend of George’s who claims to be a spirit medium, but demonstrates more than her fair share of street smarts and cunning. Being an avid reader of science fiction, pulps, and yes, even H.P. Lovecraft, Atticus takes it in stride when, after several life-and-death car chases, they finally reach Arden and find they have stumbled into a town very much like a Lovecraft pulp tale. He discovers that the Order of the New Dawn, a group of “natural philosophers” (i.e., would be alchemists) have lured him to a ceremony because they believe he carries the blood of a powerful sorcerer. The question is how polite are they going to be about collecting that blood? And even if Atticus and his band do escape, what strangeness might follow them back to Chicago…?

And that’s just the opening act. Once back in Chicago, the narrative becomes more episodic, with each section featuring a different friend or relation of Atticus and the troubling aspects of American history intermingled with the supernatural. In “The Witch House,” Letitia sets out to become a “Pioneer”—a black owner of a house in a traditionally white neighborhood. Not only is the system rigged against her (banks, reluctant to grant mortgages to blacks, instead set up alternate agreements heavily stacked against the would-be home owner), but she faces a two-pronged attack trying to force her out, beset on one front by her white neighbors and the other by a poltergeist. In one episode, the brothers of a Prince Hall Freemasons Lodge (Prince Hall Masons is a real-life, predominantly black Freemason order) go on a treasure hunt in the catacombs of Chicago’s underground, searching for a grimoire of a warlock, who was also a prohibition-era gangster. In these stories, the wrong inflection in tone while reciting an incantation or the wrong tone of voice when speaking with a police officer present equal danger for the hero or heroine. Another tale reframes Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to explore the experience of “passing”, when a light-skinned African American could present as either black or white and thereby adopt a dual identity.

I’d go on, but each episode builds upon the next to advance the larger narrative and I don’t want to spoil anything (save that the aforementioned “Witch House” and “Hippolyta Green Disturbs the Universe” may be my favorites). Frankly, some of the surprise is discovering which character mentioned offhandedly or even portrayed disparagingly in one chapter becomes the hero or heroine of the next.

The book has a lot for fans of horror and science fiction—even those who aren’t devotees of H.P. Lovecraft. Classic Sci-fi and pulp adventures available to a 1950’s audience—The Martian Chronicles, Tom Swift, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and radio pulp drama—are all touched upon, but again through an African American lens. Escapism becomes all the more important for a people whose lives are not only mundane but often difficult and steeped in struggle. But what does it mean when even in escapist flights of fancy, the underlying inequities of reality are still present?

Which brings us to the elephant in the room: Lovecraft and race. With his posthumous fame, modern Lovecraft fans who care to look are confronted with personal correspondence, letters to the editor, and even bits of doggerel verse that display H.P.’s visceral detestation of peoples and cultures other than White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And while some of his apologists may claim that this was par for the times and his upbringing, I would argue that even for the time someone getting worried about “a plague of clamorous French-Canadians” may have been afflicted with literal xenophobia, the fear of the different. In his more fantastical writings, the hordes of Blacks, Jews, Poles, Catholics, Irish, Latins, and the aforementioned French Canadians became the hierarchy of bug-eyed creatures and mad cultists that so bedevil the characters of his stories.

In this novel Matt Ruff (who is white) asks us not to erase H.P. or love him warts and all but acknowledge the effect that his talents and his flaws have on the audience and move forward from there.

If asked to sum up the Lovecraftian aesthetic many would do so with the term “unease”. If pressed to elaborate one might expound, “unease at the true horror and injustice of the world.” By setting the narrative in the Jim Crow Era, that unease and injustice become a palpable, malevolent force even before any tentacled monsters or cultists arrive on the scene. For generations, tales from an ancestor who lived on a plantation, an uncle who was at the mercy of a vindictive police officer during a traffic stop, or an aunt tailed by a car full of white thugs have been the horror stories passed down in the family lore of all-too-many homes. For those lucky enough to be born in more favorable times, places, and stations, these horrors should be as terrifying as any strange elder god sleeping in a sunken city. For those not so lucky? Well, that’s just another day in Lovecraft country.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dirty Half Dozen

Suicide Squad
Movie Review by Kerey McKenna

With Suicide Squad, Warner Brothers may have finally figured out how to make their insistence on gritty and dark tones (of both subject matter and visual palette) work in the DC comic book universe: focus on the bad guys. While not a great movie, it’s a lot better than the last installment of the series, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and may signal an important course correction for the DC cinematic world. So it’s worth a look.

The set up for Suicide Squad is fairly straightforward: US counterterrorism/ intelligence bureaucrat Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) believes that the government can no longer depend on vigilantes like Batman or good Samaritans like Superman to save the day (or for that matter conduct traditional espionage or military actions). So taking a page from The Dirty Dozen, Waller recruits imprisoned super-criminals to form a new black ops team, “Task Force X.” For every mission they complete, the convicts of Task Force X receive time off their sentences and the chance to get out of their supermax cells and into the open air to deal death and mayhem. But given the dangers of their work, and the penalty for escape attempts, the convicts quickly dub the team “Suicide Squad”:

  • Deadshot (Will Smith): An assassin with unerring aim, be it with his arsenal of custom weapons and targeting gizmos or his naked eye and a standard handgun, he never misses.
  • Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie): Formerly psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel of Arkham Asylum, she fell in love with one of her patients….Batman arch-nemesis the Joker. Leaving respectability and sanity behind, she becomes the Clown Prince of Crime’s gun moll until she is captured by Batman.
  • Enchantress/Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne): And speaking of good girls gone bad, we have Enchantress. After unsealing an ancient evil from a South American crypt, mousy archeologist Dr. Moone is now sharing a body with an ancient witch.
  • El Diablo (Jay Hernandez): An L.A. gang banger who has a literal fiery Latin temper. Unfortunately he is trying to put a life of violence behind him and declares himself a conscientious objector to the Suicide Squad’s violent methods.
  • Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney): An Australian thief with a signature weapon. Three guesses what it is.
  • Killer Croc (Adewale Akinuoye-Agbaje): a half man/half crocodile mutant with the strength and underwater aptitude (and table manners) of his reptilian namesake.
  • Slipknot (Adam Beech): An escape artist/thief.

    They work under the command of Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), a black ops soldier charged with keeping them on task and summarily executing any member that tries to escape. Flag is assisted by Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Like Captain Boomerang no points for guessing her weapon of choice. And while the Joker (Jared Leto) isn’t actually a member of the Squad, he makes his premiere in this new DC shared cinematic universe, his twisted intellect intent on finding Harley Quinn and springing her from jail.

    Was Suicide Squad a grand slam out of the park like Fox’s surprise hit Deadpool earlier this year? No. But it was a solid base hit that promises Warner Brothers isn’t completely mismanaging the translation of another set of comic book characters to the big screen. It’s a decent shoot-em up that also happens to do some world building for DC as they try to catch up with Marvel. And it succeeds at getting the Joker—and the DC universe—out of the shadow cast by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, and the late Heath Ledger. The movie also delivers by bringing long-time fan favorite Harley Quinn to the screen. Better pop culture commentators than I have written much on what it means that one of DC’s most iconic women is a psychopath suffering from a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome, but for now it’s enough to say, she may be crazy but she is never boring. Also, speaking of unpredictability, Will Smith’s performance, seemingly peppered with improv, certainly helps punch up a very dour script and bring some much needed heart to the film.

    However due to some pacing issues early in the film and how the movie just can’t seem to shake the cynicism of the DC cinematic universe, my recommendation comes with a lot of reservations. If you want to see a fun movie with a group of lovable comic book rogues coming together to do the right thing, accompanied by a pop music sound track…go re-watch Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. If you want to see DC villains pull off a heist…look up Batman: Assault on Arkham, a direct to video animated film about the Suicide Squad, made two years ago with a bunch of the same characters; unlike the live action division, DC’s animation studios is unembarrassed to make films about comic book characters. BUT—if your comic book hero heist movie absolutely has to have Will Smith in it, then Suicide Squad is the movie for you.

    Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Learn more at