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 www.watchcityfestival.com.

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 www.watchcityfestival.com.

  • Wednesday, August 3, 2016

    Today's Tom Sawyer. He gets by on you.

    Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
    Book Review by Kerey McKenna

    In a not-too-distant future beset by poverty, crime, and scarcity, a state-of-the-art virtual reality game offers an oasis from a world of devastation. It’s even called Oasis, the marketing department’s backronym for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation. For the price of visor and gloves, even the poorest American can escape the drudgery of their everyday lives to delve into a virtual world built upon the culmination of over a century’s worth of telecommunications, visual media, and computer science. By the mid-21st Century, technology has finally delivered on the dreams of a generation of youth who spent the 1980’s escaping into fantasy by feeding their pocket change to arcade machines and huddling around a card table playing D&D.

    The creator of Oasis, James Donovan Halliday, was himself a child of the 80’s, before growing up into a combination of Steve Jobs and Howard Hughes. He never forgot that his state-of-the-art simulation would not have been possible without the wood-paneled home computer he got for Christmas as a child. As his legacy, he makes sure that no one else forgets….

    Upon his death, the estate of the reclusive billionaire releases an elaborate video game filled with more 80’s pop culture than if Cyndi Lauper’s tour bus crashed into VH1 headquarters and it was all filmed by John Hughes. The will states that like many programmers before him, Halliday has placed hidden content, an Easter egg, which can be found by dedicated players who can prove their aptitude at classic video games and love of 80’s culture. The player who completes the quest will be named Halliday’s heir and inherit a vast fortune and a controlling stake in his company—and therefore become de facto master of the virtual reality universe.

    And so a generation of Easter egg hunters (later dubbed “Gunters”) immerse themselves in 1980’s culture and claim it as their own. Their playlists are filled with 80’s classics (transferred from vinyl or cassette for that analog-quality sound). They read back issues of Dragon magazine for clues on Halliday’s game design inspirations. Re-creations of arcade parlors are meticulously programmed so that the Gunters can use state-of-the-art virtual reality equipment to simulate playing classic Pac-Man in a pizzeria while MTV cranks the tunes in the background--cutting edge technology used to make a game within a game. The customized virtual environments created by players are just as likely to be modeled after a 1980’s rec room as an interplanetary spaceship (and some users opt to simply put their rec room inside their spaceship).

    Enter our hero. Wade Watts, a pop culture-obsessed hacker with the disadvantage of being born into abject poverty. The virtual reality public school he attends offers an escape from his troubled home in “the stacks” (a slum town made by literally stacking RV’s into ramshackle high rise apartments). He has lots of practice on classic games that form the new arcade canon and his head contains more facts and stats about the 1980’s than Marty McFly’s Grays Sports Almanac. But with barely two quarters to rub together, he can’t afford the DLC gear and weapons to go questing with the other Gunters. At least, not until the long sought after quest begins practically in his own backyard. Wade is about to shoot to the top of the leader board and to the number one target for everyone else. And as an immortal classic movie once promised, “There can be only one”.

    Ready Player One is a love letter, or perhaps more fittingly a fan-fic, dedicated to the pop culture of the 1980’s; the references to anything past 1990 could, it seems, be counted on one hand. Fortunately for readers not well-steeped in nerd culture and/or the minutia of early video game design, the book is rather patient in explaining the mechanics and significance of the cultural artifacts it excavates, such as the simple text commands of the early PC games, or that yes indeed Spiderman did have a giant robot at his command (when he was adapted for Japanese TV viewers as Supaid├óman). I think to the degree that this works may well vary from reader to reader. For me it worked because our narrator Wade is a pop culture obsessive who is compelled to devour and then carefully curate every piece of trivia that interests him. And I found his interest infectious, but then I’m a receptive audience. (I am a reviewer for a blog called Nerds Who Read, after all).

    I chose to read this book now because Stephen Spielberg is working on adapting the novel to the silver screen. It’s a promising venture: much of the forward momentum of the story is driven by a treasure hunt right out of The Goonies or Indiana Jones, exactly the sort of thing Spielberg could knock out of the park. However, I wanted to experience the novel before Spielberg’s version eclipses the original, as happened with Jaws and Jurassic Park. I also wanted to imagine a world of real geeks and nerds, not Hollywood-attractive actors plopped into frumpy clothing. To experience a story that was equal parts Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and The Last Star Fighter, as opposed to merely a studio’s calculated gambit to greenlight “the next Hunger Games.” And in hindsight it was good to get a sense of the full breadth of author’s pop culture obsession. Through the vagaries of IP law, the novel was able to drop a lot of references to all sorts of music, video games, movies, comic books, etc. For example, at one point the novel talks about a character heading out to a VR club, dressed to the nines in a Buckaroo Bonzai costume, and stepping out of a vehicle that is gestalt of the Back to the Future DeLorean, Ecto 1 from Ghostbusters, and KITT from Knight Rider. Steven Spielberg might have had the clout to get Warner Brothers to send the Looney Toons over to Disney to play for a bit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but will Disney return the favor and let Steven borrow their shiny new toy Star Wars, along with an Avenger or two? Will Universal license footage from John Hughes classics to their rival Warner Brothers? I foresee a lot of scenes and set pieces being either dropped entirely or replaced with references that fall under Warner Brothers' ownership.

    But those are questions for another day. Presumably the movie’s opening day in 2018. For now grab the book, put on a Rush mix tape, chug a bottle of New Coke, and set your flux capacitor to 1985! I’ll start you off:

    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 www.watchcityfestival.com.