Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Lovecraft's Run

For some odd reason, every summer I find myself caught up in a craving for Lovecraft's scary stories. One would think this would be more reasonable over the fall months or on Halloween. Strange as it is that the sun and the water draw me to tales of Eldritch horror and forgotten forbidden lore, I do enjoy sitting up late at night and reading his terrifying works. Last summer that was how I was able to, in a single sitting, pound out my Lovecraftian horror short The Disappearance of Wilson and I intend to make a stab at another story like that. However, I'm just going to reminisce on some of the stories I have particularly enjoyed and managed to have keep me up over the summer.

Pickman's Model

This was in fact, the first Lovecraft story which ever gave me a nightmare. The story revolves around a reclusive and unusual artist (Robert Pickman) who creates macabre imagery of half-man half-dog creatures who rummage through the underworld. The storyteller relates the news of getting Pickman to tell him how he came up with such terrible ideas and learning an awful truth regarding the author's influence.

I read this one on a cottage trip, and it was part of my inspiration for my own short story. Imagining the wild north of Ontario and what it may hide was a great creepy dream and the waking nightmare of Pickman's creatures lurking on the steps to drag me off to the unknown inspired me to hammer this gem out.

The Call of Cthulu

If you have not heard of this story you clearly don't know your Lovecraft. Written in the summer of 1926 it was published in February 1928 in the Weird Tales magazine. It is a story revolving around the discovery and perusal of a deceased academics papers relating to a mysterious and gruesome statue and idol confiscated during a police raid in Louisiana. From there it branches out into a sinister tale of an almost apocalypse (in every sense of the word) as the confluence of unlikely events leads a horrible revelation that would drive any man to despair.

This is perhaps, Lovecraft's most well known work, with Cthulu being the creature most associated with Lovecraftian fiction. His cephalopod visage has graced the covers of many books and drawings, and even the nightmares of some! I personally have a picture of him hanging over my bed to ward off nightmares. The story is dark and exciting, with elements of mystery and penny dreadful thrillers, making it entertaining reading from any angle!

The Whisperer in the Darkness

This particular story was one much discussed by a coworker and I years ago. Involving shambling horrors from beyond the stars, it was one which made much hay over the discovery of Pluto back in the day. A researcher at Miskatonic University is contacted by a reclusive professor who, in response to reports of eerie creatures seen floating in the rivers following a period of intense flooding. The professor passes on undeniable truth regarding other worldly origins of these strange creatures, and over time, begins to feel the strain as they besiege his home.

Told largely through a series of correspondence and personal memoirs, it ratchets up the tension over time as the revelations unfold and the academics step steadily closer to madness from the revelations of what they have discovered. Truly a great short read.

The Beast of the Bosporus

This Lovecraftian tale, not written by Lovecraft, but in a delightfully similar vein, takes us out of Lovecrat's usual setting of rural New England, to the world of the 16th Century Ottoman Empire. Having lost the Battle of Lepanto, the Sublime Porte is looking for a way to strike back at the Spanish who have 'singed their beard.' In it we see palace intrigue, terrifying encounters, and a truly epic conclusion regarding powers that should not be tampered with.

Seeing it all done in a place where you don't really expect Lovecraftian horror makes it so much more interesting.

I have talked about it before, and you can find it in Digital Fantasy Fiction Anthology: Uncommon Senses.

Now these are just a small sampling of Lovecraft's works you can find, and one that is a very delightful example of switching up the location of these eldritch horrors! If people are looking for some timeless reads they should definitely check out the works of Lovecraft and his modern successors.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Retro Review: The Ten Commandments

Personally, I am an old movie buff. Even though old movies acting and effects are nowhere near what we can put on the screen today, they still tell excellent stories and gives a glimpse into the world as it was way back then. This is part of the reason I tend to appreciate them so much as compared to some modern films which don't do the era they are set in justice I think.

Recently, I was able to watch the 1956 classic The Ten Commandments on Netflix.

That film is epic, which tells not only its own innovative story of the Exodus, but is epic in scope and scale of story telling regarding the life of Moses, Pharaoh, and the Israelites. It also draws influence from novels like Dorothy Clark Wilson's Prince of Egypt, Joseph Ingraham's Pillar of Fire, and On Eagle's Wings by Arthur Eustace Southton. Not only that, it draws on historical sources like Philo's Life of Moses and the works of Josephus. This provides a rich background to draw characters and inspiration from in order to craft a grand narrative to tell a new story of Moses. Largely filling in the 'forgotten years' between Moses exile and return to Egypt.

The casting though, is spot on.

A younger Charlton Heston (with pectoral muscles which could put eyes out) captures a young, outgoing, and brash image of Moses who has been raised by Egyptians. His performance as the film rolls on and he undergoes a transformation from honorable, but driven and intriguing prince, to a devout holy man with a mission to free his people. His penchant for chewing the scenery is fantastic in my opinion and he can be perfectly over the top as necessary.

The second character I noticed was Vincent Price as Baka, an Egyptian overseer who goes from faithful assistant to Moses, to card carrying villain. The man whose voice I remember from The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo as a kid, plays an excellent and sinister character on screen. Though admittedly this is a tiny role, it fills me with great amusement.

Bigger roles of course are those of Rameses (Yul Brynner), Nefritiri (Anne Baxter), Joshua (John Derek), Aaron (John Carradine), Lilia (Debra Paget), Yochabel (Martha Scott) and Bithia (Nina Foch). Each of these actors is well cast to their parts, and the female leads are all amazing in their performances.

I think that for a 1950s film, the agency and drama it grants to women is admirable. The roles of Nina Foch as Bithia and Martha Scott as Yochabel both are allowed to shape and drive Moses while holding some agency of their own. Though this is primarily in the form of protecting and nurturing their biological and adoptive son, it is a good role regardless. Nefritiri, whose scheming and agency drives much of the plot is a fantastic character, for both her tragic backstory and her desire for vengeance. Unfortunately, the character Lila falls into the "damsel in distress" category as Joshua's love interest.

While the film would soundly and swiftly fail a modern Betchel Test, it is fair for its day in the 1950s in giving its female characters more voice.

The Biblical epic though, unfolds roughly similar to the original story in the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh, fearing that the people of Judah will become too populous, orders the massacre of every firstborn males of the Hebrews. Yochabel, seeking to protect her son, sets him adrift in the river. He is saved and adopted by Bithia, daughter of Pharaoh.

Years pass, the Hebrews suffer, but Moses (named so by Bithia) is raised in luxury. Prince Moses quickly becomes the favorite of Pharaoh Sethi, to the jealously of his son Prince Rameses. This kicks off the plot as Rameses is charged to build a great city to honor Sethi, but his cruelty slows production. Meanwhile, Moses has won a great victory over Ethiopia, earning acclaim. However, he covets Pharaoh's daughter Nefritiri, who Rameses also covets. When Moses is sent to build Sethi's great city, Rameses schemes against him. Moses however, sees the plight of the Hebrews, and tries to aid them. In the process, he learns of his Hebrew parentage and has a crisis of conscience. In doing so he decides to forgo his Egyptian heritage and live among the slaves.

Here is where part of the film felt contrived for me. In the Book of Exodus, (and the great adaptation, The Prince of Egypt) Moses kills an Egyptian overseer, so he must flee. Here, the same thing happens but in a far more contrived way. Despite being told repeatedly that only Pharaoh may free slaves, and with his path to becoming Pharaoh secure, Moses decides to forgo power and live amongst the Hebrews to know his heritage. Instead of using the path laid out for him to free his people and become an enlightened ruler, he decides to take the hard and stupid way. Moses from this movie doesn't seem too bright in this moment.

It gets worse when because of this bad decision he is captured and accused of being "the Deliverer" whom the Hebrews speak of taking them out of bondage. Rameses has him exiled, showing a great deal of bad judgement himself, and Moses wanders the desert until he comes to the tribe of Jethro, and meets his daughter Sephora.

From here the narrative leaves the contrivance train and we get to the big symbols of the burning bush, Moses receiving his staff and getting all woolly haired and wild eyed, and his return to Egypt.

In is at this point that the movie begins playing to its strengths. While the acting and story telling in the first half of the movie is superb (save for Moses being something of an idiot) the narrative shines forth to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt quite well.

The plagues are carried out as well as can be expected with 50s special effects, which is to say remarkably well at points. They manage to show the turning of the Nile to blood, the flaming hail, and a truly creepy rendition of the Angel of Death coming into Egypt. That last scene is tense, disturbing, and truly enjoyable.

The special effects too, are stunning for the time. Showing off the great accomplishments in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the tempest of God as a pillar of fire, and the burning bush. There was a reason this was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made.

When one considers that by and large this was accomplished through practical effects and with large groups of extras, the coordination is even more impressive. In the penultimate scene where Rameses chases the Jews to the Red Sea, the armies of Pharaoh are actually being played by the Egyptian Army! Which is pretty great in my humble opinion.

At the time this was one of the most expensive movies ever produced. When one considers the budgets many movies get now and the results that delivers, it should be obvious that directors could learn a thing or two from old movies.

The film is of course something of a morality tale. Nefritiri is something of a "Vamp" who uses her feminine wiles to confuse and misguide the men in her life, and is influenced by first her lust, then hatred for Moses. That the story is from the Book of Exodus is fitting since it is the triumph of the Christian God over the gods of Egypt. Moses more questionable decisions come from a clear intent of following an honor code.

Definitely old fashioned in its message, The Ten Commandments is a spectacle that shouldn't be missed, however. The films scenes of Biblical epics and amazing effects for the 50s stand true today. The acting is grand, the story holds up as timeless, and the film itself is a deserved epic. If the long view time puts you off, it comes with a natural intermission to pause at for a little while if you're not up for seeing the whole thing in one sitting.

Well worth seeing as an excellent Retro Film. Personally, I'm looking forward to recommending many more for you!

Monday, 25 June 2018

Kill Joy Killdeer

So the annual Bluesfest in Ottawa has been disrupted by a protected migratory bird laying its eggs where the main stage is to be set up. This has created a situation known now as the 'Bluesnest' which is proving birds can be real kill joys.

The bird, a Killdeer, is relatively plentiful across North America, but the eggs cannot be moved without approval from the government as they are protected under the Migratory Birds Convention Act of 1994. Yes, that is real. This causes a problem for the organizers as it potentially postpones their set up, and leads to a delay in an event which draws hundreds of thousands each year. This generates great revenue for the city and for all involved.

Amusingly while listening to the radio I have heard great support for the little bird. Many people are actively rooting for it, except perhaps those who stand to lose a lot of money. However, that the bird is even being respected at all is something that makes me proud of my country and this city. That it is making front page news is endlessly amusing since it holds up a very profitable venture.

Inevitably I think the bird and nest will be moved. There's simply too much money and publicity at stake. At most the festival may be delayed by a day or two while some wrangling takes place, but the show will go on.

Now I personally am not a huge fan of Bluesfest, but it is an important part of Ottawa summer life and draws huge crowds. The money being made and the publicity for artists who attend is huge, and as an opportunity can't be missed. While I personally won't be attending I would wish those who are attending well, and really only hope for the respect to the venue (and its local wildlife) it deserves.

However, we must hope that this respect will be understood by our avian brethren. Birds, despite their shorter lifespan, clearly have long genetic memories. Being capable of flight (and with the ability to dive bomb their excrement) they may prove more adept at ruining the festival than the organizers might like. I believe we know all too well what can happen if things get out of hand...

In the spirit of cooperation I propose we respect our flying friends and just let 'em hatch! Otherwise no one might live to enjoy the festival.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Phyrne Fisher

Last December I had the privilege of going overseas across the Pacific and visiting the wonderful country of Australia, which has since then really captured my imagination. It is a country with a rich and fascinating history, and one just as unique and interesting as Canada. I'm even writing an amusing travelogue based on my notes from the trip at the moment.

But with a visit to Australia I became enamored with the places and people. Naturally I began pursuing some fiction set in the country.

Thankfully I was then introduced to the Phryne Fisher series of novels. Which is also an excellent series on Netflix.

Set in the late 1920s it chronicles the career of recent immigrant (and former emigrant) Phryne Fisher, who has returned to Australia to undertake some detective work on behalf of friends in England. Upon arriving in Australia she finds herself swept up in a tide of mystery, intrigue, and murder as the dark underbelly down under creeps into her life. Not one to be scared by such things she takes to solving murder and mayhem with particular aplomb. Along the way saving wayward souls and attracting some colorful followers.

First is her maidservant Dot, whom she saves from committing murder on a man who wronger her. Then a couple of redragger cabbies who serve as co-investigators and impromptu muscle as needed. Her servants, the aptly named Mr. and Mrs Butler, and wayward orphans who end up her wards. This fills up her not inconsiderable household quickly, and amidst solving crimes she continues an amorous life of romance and earning the respect of her male peers through her charm, wit, and intelligence.

Phryne, a character named after an ancient Theban courtesan, is a well rounded character. She's also unapologetically feminist, feminine and amorous. Exploring the unfortunate situations of woman in early 20th century society through her own privileged lens which is informed by her upbringing in poverty. This makes her a breath of fresh air in my opinion. She openly lampshades morals of the time while still fitting into the 'flapper' idea that is historical. She also calls out the sexism and patriarchal attitudes that keep women in chains in that era, making for some fun, and from the present, humorous, reading as she outwits the men who try to outwit her.

The original stories (the first three of which I have just read in the omnibus Introducing the Honourable Phryne Fisher) were written by Australian author Kerry Greenwood. First appearing in the 1989 novel Cocaine Blues, Ms. Fisher would appear in a further 19 stories set in Australia.

However, my original introduction to the character came through the show Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries the aforementioned show on Netflix dramatizing the story of Miss Fisher in a role well played by Essie Davis.

One small disappointment in seeing the show before the book is that I now have a set view in my head for how the characters look, even though that might not necessarily be true to how they are portrayed in the books. While that is not a problem as Essie Davis looks almost exactly how one would picture Miss Fisher in the books, other characters are a bit problematic to contemplate in their looks based on the shows portrayal of them.

This isn't to say the show is bad, far from it, but that this is why I prefer a written medium before I watch a screen medium of portrayal so an image doesn't get stuck in my head.

However, the two mediums tell these stories well.

In the stories we have an abundance of side characters and slowly introduced secondary characters who come out of the woodwork over time. For instance, while the show is quick to focus on Inspector Robinson, he is not much other than a secondary character in the first few books who only grown into his own over time. Mrs. Butler is absent from the series entirely, and some intriguing secondary characters such as Phryne's prostitute friend, Policewoman Jones, and Phryne's various lovers, go completely unmentioned. This is understandable for television reasons, but it makes the books strikingly different in tone and even with some fun twists to the stories you see on the screen. However, some problems emerge when it seems like Robinson and his one police sidekick are the only constables in town, especially as Ms. Fisher solves crimes farther away.

The show though, has one intriguing feature. An overarching plot device throughout the different seasons is always tied in from an earlier mystery. The first is Phryne confronting a serial killer who killed her sister in their childhood and attempting to discover the reason for it. The subsequent seasons all introduce their own clever plots to the piece, and you can be swept up trying to figure them out. 

The mysteries she solves are also delightfully clever. My favorite is probably the 1991 book (and episode of the same name) Murder on the Ballarat Train which does credit to the classic Orient Express mystery, but also is a clever murder in and of itself with clues that stack up only slowly over time until you reach a terrifying conclusion! It's an intriguing stumper which makes your mind wonder in a good way!

Though I have thus far only read three of the novels, I fully intend to get my hands on more of them for a deep read.

Her murders, as explored on the show, are also clever. From a ghostly haunting in a theater, to a Christmas themed serial killing, Phyrne never fails to find the excitement down under!

To those who enjoy strong female characters, Australia (and the accent), good mysteries, period drams, and of course, a dash of intrigue, I heartily recommend these stories. If you're not a big reader check out the series on Netflix, or purchase it yourself! I can personally attest that it is well worth the read/watch and you won't be wasting your time.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

A Kill in the Morning

The year is 1955 and something is very wrong with the world.

That is the excellent opening tagline which sucked me into the world of A Kill in the Morning by Graeme Shimmin. Published in 2015 this is a riveting action packed alternate history novel that could in fact be a feature film ripped from the 1980s. It has the riveting action and intrigue of a James Bond novel and the detail of an alternate history piece. Even the book cover looks like something you would find in the amazing stylized posters of the era!

Originally written on alternate by user Shimbo it then got published and came out to some acclaim in the community. I'm quite pleased by this as not only am I a member of the website myself, but I've followed the work of other members there for a while as well!

In that case I was happy to tear into this novel with unbridled pleasure. Let me say that it doesn't disappoint on any front, whether it be action or alternate history!

Opening in 1955 we meet a nameless British assassin while he is out in Germany. Officially he is supposed to be on holiday. Really he ends up killing an SS officer who is responsible for the massacre of his team on a dangerous mission in 1947. One of them at least. He returns to a Britain engaged in a cold war with the German Reich, with the two sides are locked in atomic staring contest across the Channel.

While fleeing from his mission he meets a hapless member of the White Rose, Kitty, as she stumbles away from a mission of her own. Upon meeting her he returns to Britain where he begins to unravel an intrigue that has been playing out since 1941. In Germany itself, a ruthless SS man is rising to the top, the man with the iron heart Reinhard Heydrich.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Small Treasures

On Sunday, I had the nostalgic experience of helping empty out my grandmothers house. It had been in my family for 44 years, and I have many fond memories of it from my earliest childhood. In helping clean it out I found myself nostalgic and wistful for those younger years.

It was a place where my parents had grown into adulthood, and I too went from an infant to an adult in those halls. I have happy memories of it, running around the large household, playing in the big basement, and going through (what seemed to my younger mind) the palatial halls and rooms.

The brown carpet in particular was a fixture of my childhood

It was where I learned my love of history, my love of reading, and my early faith with the tutelage of my uncle and grandmother. In fact I think many of my best lessons in life were learned under that roof. My grandmother was one of the people who made me who I am today.

"In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, 'God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.'" (1 Peter 5:5)

“I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food.” (Job 23:12)

I learned manners in this dining room.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

The German Spring Offensive and "Victory"

100 years ago this month, the Germans began a series of offensives designed to, if not drive the Entente to defeat, drive them to the negotiating table. The German Spring Offensive (the Kaiserschlacht) or more generally, Operation Michael, the brain child of German Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff. This was all to take place with 190 Divisions, three million men, and reinforcements, drawn from the German victory on the Eastern Front. It was the hope that this offensive would drive a wedge between the British and French armies, forcing the British to protect the Channel Ports, and push the French back into Paris so the German Army could deliver a coup-de-main and drive the Entente from the war before American manpower could be decisive.

The first phase, Operation Michael, was designed to drive the a wedge between the French and British armies, and force the British back towards the Channel Ports. Follow up operations (initially termed Operation Georg) would then turn north to deliver a decisive blow to the British in Flanders by capturing Hazebrouck railway junction. Meanwhile, smaller operations would distract and throw back the French, rendering them unable to aid the British and leaving their flank open for an eventual march on Paris.

However, lofty as these goals were, in reality they were strategic failures. While Operation Michael was a great success, driving the British back in a huge breakthrough, it lacked any strategic objective, and Ludendorff failed to set any major objective until it was too late. He reinforced success, rather than strategic goals, and only set Amiens as an objective after a week of fighting. After two weeks the attack fizzled out as the Germans outpaced their supplies, and failed to follow up their attacks. A miniature version of Georg (Georgette) was then launched to try and keep the British off balance, resulting in the Battle of the Lys, which also ended in failure. In the end this lengthened German lines by 80km, in a weak salient with no true strategic value.

They also lost over 350,000 irreplaceable troops. These soldiers were the best of the best, selected for their fitness and professionalism. By the end of April, these men were gone. The elite stormtroopers were depleted, along with the reserves that were supposed to keep the subsequent offensives on track.

However, the Germans came within a hairsbreadth of forcing their way through to the vital rail line at Amiens. If the Germans had captured Amiens during Operation Michael, they would have been able to severely damage the British ability to supply their armies in the field, and put a significant chink in the Entente's ability to coordinate. Follow up operations could then inflict local defeats on the Entente forces, and maybe, just maybe, drive them to the negotiating table before summer, and the arrival of the American juggernaut.

Let us assume that Ludendorff manages to rush everything in to strengthen his right flank and manages to press on to Amiens, strengthening his lines so we end up with a situation roughly like this:

Amiens is in German hands, and the right is slightly more stable, with a definite wedge driven between the Entente armies, with Haig and the BEF divided along the Somme, and the French First Army on their flank. The railroads are in German hands but damaged, and they have suffered heavier casualties and failed to take Arras, which is well entrenched.

The Entente now must marshal for a counter offensive, but the Germans cannot hope to continue their planned spring offensives. Assuming they attempt to, they instead opt to fall into the defensive by June, rather than continuing to attack into July of 1918. Ludendorff informs the Kaiser they must seek negotiations, but not an armistice, while the Entente is unbalanced, lest they find themselves with nothing.

Assuming for the moment the Entente accepts German negotiations, what might this potential peace look like?