Sunday, 29 July 2018

Those R&R Days

On Thursday I had an absolutely lovely day doing nothing. Now, to some people that may sound awful as I'm supposed to be writing or working, or doing whatever it is twenty-something Canadians do in the summer when our igloos melt. However, much has been happening in my professional and personal life that makes a day spent doing nothing a pure joy.

Many of you older folks may know what I'm talking about already. Days where you don't have to be rushing around or double checking things. Days when you're not really expected to do something and can just do, well, whatever.

Personally, I chose to spend that time with someone I'm rather fond of, while also taking time to expand my reading list and add more weight to my bookshelves. Adding to that realizing I also need a new bookshelf before my existing one collapses or I completely run out of floor space. Walking room is a must after all.

But I was extremely lucky to spend some time in the beautiful city I call home. After days of rain and humidity the weather was near perfect. We were able to go out and sit in the sun and do some much needed R&R (Reading and Relaxation) then move on to grab some delicious lunch at a cantina in the Byward Market. While perusing that in lovely weather, we next got to go and sit at the balcony of the Copper Spirits and Sights rooftop establishment in Ottawa. There we simply had drinks and read. There was something fun about just sitting, drinking, and reading while seeing people who knew there was a two hour wait for one of those coveted balcony seats.

If that doesn't tell you timing is everything I don't know what will.

Alas some brief, but bad, weather did come our way and drive us from our rooftop perch. However, we both got home and sat quietly for the evening, watching some fun documentaries on the hidden killers in British homes throughout history.

All in all, it was a relaxing day I wouldn't have wanted to spend any other way.

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!