The Rabbit & his Shadow

RAHS1Just over forty years ago, I was brought into this world at Huddersfield’s Princess Royal hospital.

Like all newborns I’d like to think I entered the world full of innocence and without fear.

I don’t remember much of those early years in the mid-1970s but I do remember my first exposure to absolute soul-numbing horror.

As a toddler my Mother would often take me to visit her parents who would then read to me.

I love reading, I always have but in those days I would beg my Granny to read me a specific book; a book that both terrified and enthralled me.

After a recent conversation regarding the book, my Mother has kindly sourced a copy – all the way from the states – and so I present to you, the book that stands as a prologue to my love of supernatural horror.

The Rabbit & his Shadow.

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This tale of paranoiac horror was my first exposure to the concept of malign “other” that was a springboard to a world of imaginary darkness so terrifying that even now, as a grown adult, I haunted by the story’s theme.

From the age of 3 or 4 right up to the age of 7 (when I was reading the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) I would ask my Granny for the book – so strong was the hold this tale had over me.

The story is a simple one (surprisingly enough for a children’s book).  It follows the woes of an innocent, yet nameless, rabbit who is being stalked by a dark and sinister shadow rabbit.

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Published as “A Happiness Story Book”, my adult eyes notice that the intention of the book is to show a transition in the rabbit from its initial unhappiness through to the joy of new found friendship at the end of the tale.

This is far from the case through the eyes of young Armaitus.

As we follow our tormented protagonist through the tale, we see it driven to despair as it tries to rid itself from the ever present pursuit of his shadow.

So desperate is the rabbit that it even tries to kill the shadow creature to gain some freedom from the beast.

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As a child, each step in the rabbit’s descent to despair carried me along with it.  Already open to the paranormal world about me, this tale taught me that I was not alone, even in the darkness, and that was somehow comforting in its discomfiture.

If I could gain this feeling from a book then it would suppress my own night terrors maybe… again, this was far from the case.

The tale ends with the rabbit risking its life to seek advice from a wise owl, an owl that chooses to offer advice rather than rend the tiny mammal in its razor sharp claws.

rahs6The rabbit attempts and succeeds in reconciliation with its nemesis, who displays an unnerving ability to both talk and move independently of its host.

Reading this tale again I realise that, subconsciously, I learnt an important lesson from this book.

It is better to embrace your demons and learn from them than flee and fight them in futility.

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Elite: Lave – Revolution – A Blast from the Past

Lave: RevoloutionLike many gamers from my generation, I remember spending hours in front of my Father‘s BBC Micro, racking up credits and saving up for a Docking Computer or a better set of lasers on my Cobra Mk III in the vector space trading game Elite.

A lifetime later and Allen Stroud takes us back to those halcyon days with this cracking piece of science fiction.

I know Allen through LRP; he played a formative part in my understanding of much of the early game world of the Lorien Trust‘s system here in the UK.

He is also, in my opinion, a thoroughly nice chap.

Set in the systems neighbouring Lave, Elite: Lave Revolution (Elite: Dangerous) tells of the cosmo-political transition that Lave takes. From the Lave of my childhood to the Lave of the forthcoming (and long awaited) reboot of the Elite game. Elite – Dangerous.

Far form being “just another game tie-in”, Lave: Revolution is as gripping as it is cunning. The tale follows a number of characters through a maze of galactic conspiracy, deception and ultimately – planetary revolution.

The story is decorated with historical transcripts and technical factoids that add to the world in which Allen is weaving the tale but this only serves to add icing to what is already a well garnished tale.

After reading this in one sitting I am left thirsty for more – I’ll have to make do with the Elite – Dangerous beta and wait for Allen to write more.

Top 5 Literary Roles Played By Sir Patrick Stewart

Sir Patrick Stewart at the 62nd Primetime Emmy...The blogosphere loves top lists, this is a well known fact of blogging.

I too love top lists, it seems to be human nature that we instantly lock onto the “Top X Somethings” and click the link.

A blog I follow has just posted up The Top 5 Characters I’d Like to Punch in The Face; listing a good selection of aggravating characters that the author would happily deck if she were to meet them on the street.

This is no mean feat, I have struggled to come up with even one literary character that I would honest-to-goodness lay out cold given half the chance.

(Actually, that one is simple, no struggle at all – Micah Samon from Harry Harrison’s Deathworld 2 – but that’s a another story).

What I found most enjoyable about the post was a footnote to entry #2, Claudius from Hamlet.

But not if he’s being played by Patrick Stewart.

(Actually, I found the caption to the associated picture more enjoyable BUT that’s not the point. )

Sir Patrick usually plays good guys, heroes and the like – Claudius is a rare example of Stewart playing an absolute bastard. He must be good at it though, he has played the role twice on screen: once in 1980 and again, alongside David Tenant in 2009 – 29 years later!

It got me to thinking that Sir Patrick Stewart really is a genuinely likeable actor but how many of his film roles are based on literary characters?

Sir Patrick Stewart grew up in Mirfield, which is very close to (considered by many to actually be a part of) my home town of Huddersfield.  A well known thespian, Sir Patrick is currently Chancellor of Huddersfield University (the University I went to – I’m so proud) and is also some kind of science fiction God!

So here I offer, as some kind of cheap compensation for being too nice to easily list characters I’d like to punch, the top 5 literary roles played by Patrick Stewart.

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Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man & The Sea

Cover of "The Old Man and The Sea"

A short while ago, I decided to take part in at least one reading challenge set by a couple of book reviewers that I follow, The Insatiable Booksluts.

To get started in their Toe-Dippin category, I have been looking to read a handful of Pulitzer Prize winning novels or works by Nobel prize winners.

Having cheated somewhat with the comfortable post-apocalyptic feel of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I decided that  my next read should be Ernest Hemingway‘s The Old Man and the Sea.

Again I feel as if I am cheating somewhat, of all the available works that have won the Pulitzer or Noble prizes, this short novel from Hemingway has won both.

Still, a work good enough to win both prizes must be worth reading; and the story’s length meant that I could start and finish in the bath – a fitting venue for such a nautical read.

I’ve never read Hemingway before and only recently have I had him recommended to me.

I found the narrative style of The Old Man and The Sea to flow comfortably, easing me gently into the environs of mid-20th century Cuba.

Well paced, the story moves quickly from the poverty and superstition surrounding the luckless Santiago (our titular Old Man) and onto a tale of perseverance and philosophy.

Hemingway shows me a world completely alien to my late 20th century upbringing.

The young “boy” Manolin dotes upon his former mentor with a sense of filial responsibility to put my generation to shame; likewise Santiago, reciprocating with a decorum befitting a man of his age and station without shaming himself with overt acceptance of aid.

After 84 days of unsuccessful fishing, the Old Man ventures out an 85th time, alone; he rows farther out than is usual in hope of landing a “big fish”.

Hemingway opens up Santiago’s inner thoughts to us, as he searches the sea for the right signs; as Santiago’s lines are pulled by potential catches so was my interest in the tale.

Hemingway builds a tangible tension in the reader, plucking at it and thrumming in the same way as the taut line affixed to Santiago’s Marlin.

For a long night and day, Santiago does calm and careful battle with the big fish before finally defeating it and attempting to bring it home.

During the battle, Santiago’s thoughts are of the nobilty of the battle itself; he bestows a level of kinship and honour upon the fish.

Santiago seems to cope well with the ordeals he faces, seeming to anthropomorphise his adversaries; lending them human characteristics.

His left hand betrays him, the big fish is a brother and the sharks filthy thieves stalking Santiago as they would an elderly victim.

He even puts some thought to the feminine and masculine qualities of the sea, which has played such an important role in his life.

Hemingway shows us extremes of both strength and humility in Santiago; giving a clear message of what one can be capable of when one puts one’s mind to it.

Santiago is a definite hero, through his outlook and determination if not in light of any success.

Throughout the narration of Santiago’s ordeals and his eventual return home, I got a real sense of isolation, peace, determination, sorrow and resignation.

Santiago doesn’t really put his circumstances down to bad luck, in the way his fellow sailors semm to; he accepts the simple mistake made in sailing too far from shore without another to help him.

Ernest Hemingway & Henry Strater 1935

In doing so, it seems that his peers accept his efforts as a sign that his run of bad luck has come to an end.

Coming home empty handed is unlucky; returning home safely, with an almost entirely devoured Marlin dwarfing one’s boat is anything but.

There is far more in this short work.

I’ve only touched on the philosophical ramifications and will absolutely have to read through again and again before I process them properly.

All in all, I’m glad I picked this up.

Maybe I’ll try more Hemingway in future.

Kraken – China Miéville

KrakenAt the long standing recommendation of a number of friends (and thanks to the very kind gift of book tokens) I picked up China Miéville‘s Kraken in the new year sales.

This weekend, with nothing but adverts and dross on the TV (and having finished Skyrim as best I can with its inherent plot glitches) I set time aside to dive into what I hoped would be a gripping ripping yarn from someone who is acclaimed as a master of the New Weird.

I was not disappointed.

Miéville crafts a well convoluted tale and clearly understands the various aspects of the world he writes about.

Kraken starts with a simple enough mystery but quickly descends into a dark and twisted hidden world that would make Moorcock proud.

I quickly drew parallels with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere but Miéville’s hidden London, his Heresiopolis, is far more mature and less fantastical – and with a far more brutal bogeyman pair than Neverwhere’s Croup and Vandemar in the universally feared Goss and Subby.

Kraken also shares kinship with Charles Stross‘s Laundry Archives; with a similar intermingling of today’s gadgets with arcane wards and hexes.  It isn’t too far a stretch of the imagination to see Miéville’s F.R.S.C. working hand in hand with Stross’s Laundry.

Kraken is less overtly Lovecraftian than the Laundry Archives though, Cthulhu and his ilk being just another set of beliefs – a drop in the ocean that Miéville’s London arises from.

I found it hard to put the book down, especially towards the spiralling end where Miéville pulls the strands of his tale back and weaves them into an incredibly gratifying ending.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was the occultural references that he placed within the novel.

BOOK OF THOTH = BOOK OF BOLLOCKS MORE LIKE, she wrote. LIBER NULL = NULLPOINTS

China Miéville’s explanation of the “knacks” and magical techniques used by some of the characters – as well as his portrayal of online occult subculture – is superb.

The story also ties this fantastic alternate London into the politics and zeitgeist of today’s society – it will be interesting to see how well the story ages.

English: China Miéville just after winning the...

Image via Wikipedia

So impressed am I with Kraken that I am sure I will enjoy the rest of Miéville’s work, although I don’t agree with his politics or his views on Tolkien.

That being said, I’ve never let an author’s political viewpoint stop me enjoying their work; Miéville’s dedication to his political belief’s is admirable and adds a good flavour to Kraken – even if he does tie chaos magicians and Nazis together.  Chaos magicians could be said to be more closely associated to the Cult Collectors in Kraken than anti-semitic hatemongers.

Alan Moore’s Neonomicon

Alan Moore's NeonomiconThis Christmas I received Alan Moore‘s Neonomicon as a rather excellent gift from my Father.

I’m quite a fan of Alan Moore’s work, being more literary in my upbringing I’ve taken more to his stories and characters than their artistic representation, whether in comic and graphic novel or in their film translations.

From The Ballad of Halo Jones to From Hell and Watchmen, I always find Alan Moore’s work thought provoking and inspirational.

Neonomicon is one of Moore’s most recent works, going hand in hand with it’s prequel, The Courtyard.

Both stories are included in the Avatar Press publication that my Father gave me.

It seems not only an understatement to say that Neonomicon is heavily influenced by the mythos and works of H. P. Lovecraft but more of a case of seeming to have missed the point of the work all together.

For one, the title itself (Neonomicon, the Book of New Names) is a reversal in concept of the Necronomicon (The Book of Dead Names) that is so frequently referenced in Mythos works.

As Neonomicon self-references:

…it’s almost like some big literary in-joke…

In Joke

The work is so full of Lovecraftian references, both overt and covert, that a Courtyard Companion has been written to collate and discuss those found in the prequel work.

Pushing Lovecraft to one side for a moment, the base story is sound enough.

The F.B.I. are investigating serial homicides that share identical methods but unrelated perpetrators.  The initial investigation of the prequel is picked up later by younger, fresher investigators (always a vulnerable breed in classic Mythos tales) who carry the story from investigation to investigation, right through to the story’s conclusion – and the reason for the graphic novel’s titular pun on the fictional Necronomicon of Lovecraft’s work.

There are equally good references to the contemporary occult scene, with mention of the works of Kenneth Grant.

Without becoming too wrapped up in over-analysing Neonomicon, the use of real world occult references is particularly gratifying for me.

Lovecraft himself fabricated many occult references within his work, as do many who work with Lovecraftian themes: Di Vermiss Mysteris, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Cthaat Aquadingen, the Necronomicon are just some that have been used by Mythos authors over the years.

Even films like Ghostbusters had their “Tobin’s Spirit Guide” to add a sense of academic relevance within the story.

Moore has turned this round by citing an actual British magician with methods and beliefs close to those of the Cthulhu Mythos.

He could just as easily have referenced Phil Hine‘s Pseudonomicon, Dave Evans’ work on magic throughout the 20th century (The History of British Magic After Crowley) or any number of other modern occult texts.

Alan Moore is considered something of a star of the contemporary occult scene himself.

This integration between the fictional medium of the graphic novel and the real world existence of actual magical practice just adds to the atmosphere arising from the overall theme of awakening and enlightenment evoked by the early sections of the work.

This ability to reach out and grab the reader has been well commented on in an analysis I discovered in YouTube:

And;

The book might not be for everybody though; in the latter third of the story, things become a little more shocking.

Lovecraft taught that horror is in the mind of the reader or viewer; Jacen Burrows artwork depicts what lies in the mind of the protagonist early on but later allows us to share the more mundane horror of murder and rape before the story transcends both to achieve an almost numbing sense of indifference to humanity.

All that being said, I really enjoyed Neonomicon and look forward to reading it again and again, finding something new with each re-visit.

English: Alan Moore speaking at TAM London 2010
Image via Wikipedia

I also have high hopes for its future, most of the works I could cite for Moore have been translated to the big screen; he is responsible for the creation of the John Constantine of Constantine, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, V for Vendetta as well as Watchmen and From Hell that I mentioned earlier.

I think I would like to see a transition of Neonomicon to film but I think it would probably be too short.

My first reading of Neonomicon must have taken around 90 minutes at best.

All in all I wouldn’t recommend Neonomicon to everybody; if you’re not a fan of the comic book style or you’re easily offended by sex and nudity then you may find it a little much.

However, if you’re already a fan of comics, Alan Moore or Lovecraft then I think you’ll enjoy it as much as I have.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The RoadAs I mentioned earlier, I have taken up the gauntlet set down by The Insatiable Booksluts and accepted their reading challenge.

To start with I chose Cormac McCarthy‘s pulitzer prize winning The Road.

A seemingly easy transition from the kind of pulp literature I am used to, I figured that this tale of a post-apocalyptic journey would ease me nicely into the less comfortable literary faire that sits on the Pulitzer list.

It was also to hand as a work colleague had kindly lent it to me after a conversation about how much I hated the film No Country for Old Men.

As The Road has also been translated to film, I’d mentioned that I hadn’t read it and would prefer to read it before seeing the film – lest the films imagery taint the author’s own descriptive talents.

I started reading at 19:30, after a light meal of Lemon Chicken and Rice; I finished at 22:25, with just enough time to watch the first two episodes of the eagerly anticipated second season of Mongrels on BBC3.

Now three hours isn’t by any means a record for me.  I think James Herbert’s The Rats currently holds the record for me, with a total reading time of 51 minutes beginning to end; but maybe that’s just  Herbert.

Within moments of starting out, I was completely wrapped up in McCarthy’s prose.  The nameless lead and his boy moved from scene to scene, carrying me, the reader, like an unseen guardian – impotent to help with the predicaments they face.

McCarthy’s descriptive prose is subtle enough to leave a lasting hint of the devastation and desolation the two wander through.  A dank and dusty world of grey, black and white.

Some of the more visceral scenes were not as shocking or disturbing as they were probably intended and in this regard I blame the hundreds of hours spent playing Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, where scenes of cannibalism and torture are the norm.

Whilst it is worth reading The Road for the scene setting alone, it is the interaction between Father and Son that really hooked me in.

I’m not a parent myself but McCarthy had me feeling that sense of paternal protection from the get go.

Most interesting of all is the disparate points of view between Father and Son, in particular the way that the Father tries to protect his Son from viewing scenes that the child has grown up with.  The Father seeks to protect his son from the more severe and charnel scenes of change in his world; the Son has never known a different world.

McCarthy also caused me to question the contemporary definition of Good and Bad.  The Father and Son see themselves as the Good Guys but as the story evolves, the Son’s infant understanding of Good and Evil in terms of black and white are contrasted with the Father’s shades of grey.

This manifests at its best in the Son’s silence, as he presumably mulls over the perceived wrong-doings of his Father; a silence broken when his Father gives honest justification of previous actions. As the relationship unfolds we see the Son understanding the reasons behind his Father’s actions but I’m left with the impression that the Son disagrees.

All in all, I enjoyed The Road.  It’s a little maudlin but thought-provoking at the same time.

Definitely worth spending a few hours on.

I’ll certainly not turn my nose up at other offerings from McCarthy and I will definitely seek the film out now but I think I’d like to try something more cheerful for the next challenge.