Tuesday, January 29, 2013

But Is It Worse Than Hitler?

Hiero's Journey, Chapter Three, continued:

For a chapter-by-chapter index to this series, click here.
(For the previous entry in this series, look here.) 

Hiero's deep “torpor,” and that of his companions, is apparently unnatural, for they sleep through the day and into the night. They only awaken when Hiero senses the approach of an enemy, the Dweller in the Mist, a humanoid clad in a white hooded cloak, whom Lanier tells us is a a product of the “ghastly cosmic forces unleashed by the Death” (65). The author reminds us again that he is writing what amounts to a fantasy novel with scientifictional trappings. Most conventional SF writers would shy away from attributing magical powers to something as scientifically explicable as a nuclear war. In Lanier's defense, one must admit that a strictly realistic post-nuclear adventure story would be one in which all of the characters were dead, and the departed, even if zombified, tend not to have the most interesting adventures. So there is that.

The Dweller in the Mist (DitM) is hardly a realistic adversary, but he, she, or it is certainly a dangerous one. Its eyes are dark pools of “ocherous evil” (66), or maybe “twin pools of lambent horror” (67),* and its motives best described as vampiric. The DitM hits Hiero with a complex psychic attack, sapping his willpower while at the same time filling him with a sense of well being, partially “sexual in nature” (66). The priest-warrior struggles within the great psychic net, warding off the DitM's “promise of unspeakable pleasures”** by reciting logarithm tables, which he memorized while in training at the Abbey. There you go, kids – Math can be useful! Hiero resists with sufficient intensity to make the Dweller pause, and then, while his adversary hesitates, Per Desteen uses his innate psychic abilities, sharpened by his recent fight with S'nerg (nearly forgotten by the audience, alas), to deliver what we might call a Psychic Eye-Poke. This surprises both the DitM and Hiero, but Our Man from Canada makes the most of his new ability, stunning the Dweller with a series of Psychic Head-Butts and smothering him/her/it within a mental web of his own. At last, the Dweller expires with an “awful mewling, twanging cry” (68) and dissolves into a puddle of black murk, additional proof that Hiero has defeated something truly eeevil.

Lanier follows the low-fantasy convention that evil is an innate property, reflected in an evil person's unattractive appearance. Evil people can thus only do evil things; it is, as the scorpion told the frog, in their nature. My readers will forgive me here if I find this treatment of the subject of eeevil unsatisfactory, if only because it eliminates the possibility of free will. The Dweller in the Mist certainly commits evil acts: it deceives its prey about its intentions, offering them the illusion of demonic sexytime while it sucks their souls, and then condemns their victims to "some joint serfdom of physical pain and soul suffering" (68). The author does not indicate, however, whether the DitM has much choice in the matter. Soul-sucking and enslavement may be essential to the creature's survival, in which case it is no more evil than a shark eating tourists or an adult polar bear hunting baby seals - or, for that matter, one of the "xenomorphs" in the Aliens movies impregnating a captured space marine. Perhaps, though, the Dweller in the Mist, like vampires in Terry Pratchett's fantasy novels, could forgo feeding on human prey and destroy only the souls of animals, like giant mutant frogs? or perhaps use only part of its power on its human victims, offering them only mildly "unspeakable pleasures" (light backrubs, perhaps) and condemning them only to a temporary serfdom of pain and soul suffering. If such choices were possible, then a DitM that preys only on humans and drains them completely would be making an evil choice, would be justifiably evil. Lanier doesn't provide us enough information to judge. As the novel stands, the only people who appear completely evil to me in this episode were the members of the Unclean Evil Mutant conspiracy, who lured the DitM to Hiero and his companions.

As for Klootz and Gorm: yes, they slept through the whole fight, again.  Not evil, just lazy.

Coming next: Hiero gets a girlfriend.

* Or “horrid spots of spectral light” (68). If Lanier had been married, something tells me he would have had trouble remembering the color of his wife's eyes.

** As everyone knows, however, Catholic priests are never attracted to "unspeakable pleasures" in the first place.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Up in the Air, Junior Unclean Mutant Birdman!

Hiero's Journey, Chapter Three:

For a chapter-by-chapter index to this series, click here.
(For the previous entry in this series, see here.)

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that no sentence in fiction should do anything other than develop character or advance the plot. This is a bit extreme - there is something to be said for describing the setting, after all - but it is a principle to which Sterling Lanier generally tries to adhere. Chapter 3 of Hiero's story, "The Cross and the Eye," certainly develops Per Desteen's character, if by that you mean his physical and mental abilities (rather than, say, his personality or motivations). For enthusiasts of the low-fantasy genre and of role-playing games various and sundry that's all "character" needs to mean. The chapter also advances both Hiero's eponymous journey and the reader's understanding of his Evil Unclean mutant adversaries' capabilities.

Early in this chapter Hiero and his animal companions cross the last eighty miles of the boreal forest that Hiero's people call the Taig (taiga). They then plunge into the lush unpleasantness of the Palood, the vast swamp fringing the Inland Sea. (I know not where the word Palood comes from; there is a French word palourde, but it means "clam.") Lanier also gives Hiero the chance to show off more of his heroic abilities. For a start, he uses his "nerve-block training" (50) to suppress pain while he stitches up his wounded leg, and one begins to suspect that the abbey where he trained is the 75th-century Canadian equivalent of the Shaolin temple. Later Hiero uses his seer's crystal to boost his native ESP, so that he can mentally scout the landscape ahead, and draws his "casting stones" to trigger his precognition and find out what perils await him and his companions. Among the stones he draws is the Cross and Eye, a symbol for great spiritual evil. This does not prevent our hero from pushing ahead into swamp-land; indeed, an extraordinary occurrence during Hiero's mind-projection convinces him he's found a shortcut through the Palood. During this brief mental voyage our hero inadvertently occupies the "highly intelligent" and very angry mind of an Unclean agent, piloting an unpowered glider high above the Taig. This episode perplexes Per Desteen, but does give him a brief bird's-eye view of his surroundings and allow him to spot the narrowest part of the upcoming Palood, and thus the shortest route through it to the sea.

One of the pleasures of post-apocalyptic fiction, incidentally, is identifying elements of the destroyed old world that are mysterious to the story's protagonists. Readers of John Christopher's YA novel The White Mountains, for instance, can enjoy (at least until I spoil it for them here) guessing that the letters "Lect City" on a corroded 20th-century sign once spelled "Electricity," or that a raised iron road called a "Shmand-fair" is actually an old French railroad (chemin de fer). Lanier describes the Unclean pilot's vehicle sufficiently well to allow the reader to deduce that it is a glider, but then he spoils the game by writing (I paraphrase here) that "Hiero couldn't know this, but it's a glider." Thanks loads, mate.  

At any rate, mindful now that the Unclean Evil Mutants (UEMs, for short) have advanced technology and are using it to look for him, Hiero decides to plunge ahead into the Palood, which Lanier describes in terms that would have delighted Freud - thick, lush, damp, full of "fetid decay and overripe growth" (56). The inevitable mosquitoes swarm so thickly that Hiero, Gorm, and Klootz are obliged to wear face masks (nice touch, that). There are other dangerous things in the swamp, like the 15-ton froglike horror that menaces Hiero and co. midway through the chapter, and which finally decides to leap over the travelers and attack another giant frog 100 meters away. Personally, I doubt that any frogs would have survived a nuclear war and subsequent climatic upheaval, but Lanier was writing before we knew how environmentally sensitive frogs actually are, so we'll give him a partial pass on this one.  (If they had been giant poison frogs, or something like this, I would give a full pass.) The reader may be disappointed that there was no man-versus-frog fight scene forthcoming, but I think Lanier was trying to keep to a one-fight-per-chapter rule, and the big confrontation in this chapter lies ahead.

During Chapter Two of Hiero's Journey Lanier presented readers with some additional details about the UEMs, which I left out of my last blog entry because, hey, there was a lot of action to cover. Hiero spent part of this section looking through the belongings of S'nerg, the improbably-named UEM leader whom he dispatched at the end of Chapter One (with a big assist from Gorm the Bear). These included a telescoping antenna with several disks attached, which, with almost unbelievable serendipity, Hiero accidentally pressed against his head, thereby discovering the device was a telepathic communicator. Hiero briefly got to enjoy having a UEM gauleiter yell at him in his head, before he finally broke the connection. I suspect we all know some managerial types who would kill to have such a device on their desks, ready to use against subordinates. The ex-mutant's belongings also included a round, compass-like device with a dial and a "fiery bead of light," presumably an LED indicator.  Hiero can't identify this machine, but we may presume it includes some sort of tracking device, because later in Chapter Three, while Hiero and his companions are in the midst of an exhausted and possibly artificial sleep, a light begins flashing on the device. Shortly thereafter, Hiero and his companions were confronted by the Dweller in the Mist, about whom I will have to write in my next entry because I've already expended 1,000 words getting us this far.

Coming next: Like all Canadians, Hiero is invited to partake of "unspeakable pleasures."

(Some links added 22 Aug. 2015.)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Devil's Night Greeting Cards

My friend Sean Williford characterized the 1990s as "the Decade of the Dork," an era in which American popular culture finally began to reflect the tastes of the nation's long-submerged nerd population. You couldn't have easily proved it by looking into movie theaters, however. Very few decent science fiction movies debuted between 1990 and 1999 - just Terry Gilliam's inventive 12 Monkeys, the entertaining space-opera satire Starship Troopers, and the Trekkie spoof Galaxyquest. (One might add The Matrix, if one considers it science fiction rather than just an elaborate videogame.) There were no fantasy films to speak of, certainly nothing comparable to the druggy fairytale movies of the 1980s or Peter Jackson's more recent Lord of the Rings trilogy. And, with one exception, there were no good superhero movies in the 1990s, despite the huge popularity of Tim Burton's Batman just before the decade began.

The exception in the superhero category was The Crow (1994) a film about a supernatural vigilante, Eric Draven (Brandon Lee), who returns from the dead to kill the gang members who murdered him and his fiancee. Presuming that my readers have already seen the movie, I can safely report that Draven, who has returned to the land of the living with a panoply of superhuman powers - super-strength and agility, invulnerability, limited clairvoyance - successfully and rather ostentatiously dispatches his foes. In the process he runs afoul of the city's crime boss, the elegant, dissolute Top Dollar (Michael Wincott), who exposes Draven's vulnerability, the eponymous crow who is his bridge between "the land of the living and the realm of the dead." Ultimately, Eric prevails in a climactic rooftop fight with Top Dollar, and returns to the embrace of ghost-Shelly. It's a straightforward revenge story, satisfyingly-plotted, and gifted with first-rate actors: Wincott, Ernie Hudson as Draven's police sergeant friend Albricht, David Kelly as the gang leader T-Bird, and Jon Polito as a sleazy pawn-shop owner. It did well in the theaters, in part due to notoriety generated by Brandon Lee's death during filming. It then went on to spawn several dreadful sequels and a Canadian TV series, the latter of which I've avoided watching for fear it might cause brain tumors.

I have watched the original Crow, however, at least once a year (on average) since I first viewed it at the U.K. student center two decades ago.* It falls squarely within the category of "good bad" media first described by Chesterton and Orwell: works that continue to give pleasure even to readers or viewers who recognize their flaws. The Crow's flaws are significant. Some of the dialogue is, and most of the flashback scenes are, nauseatingly sentimental. The director, Alex Proyas, lays on the pathos and the "gothic" detail pretty thick - Draven dons his "mime from hell" outfit to the tune of a Cure song, runs across the rain-soaked rooftops to the sound of Nine Inch Nails, fights his climactic battle atop a cathedral (complete with gargoyles), and assails Top Dollar with what one can only call a Psychic Anguish Attack. Puh-lease. Meanwhile, the lead, Brandon Lee, had almost no acting talent. He might have become a good actor with time and practice, but his premature death makes it impossible to know. This is a pity, because Eric Draven is a far more sympathetic superhero than, say, Superman or Batman; he is an ordinary person whose superpowers come from the terrible wrong he has suffered. As a character, Monsieur Crow is one of the movie's strengths; so are its well-edited action scenes, the professional casting of the rest of the film's roles, the generally competent and occasionally witty** dialogue, and the satisfying structure of its revenge story, which offers a sense of closure usually lacking in real-world confrontations.

Most likely it also still appeals because it so effectively evokes two of the dominant geek-culture tropes of its era: goth culture and what we might call "occult modern fantasy." The Crow's goth elements practically drip off of the screen: its trenchcoat-wearing, white-makeup-clad hero; Shelly's fondness for candlelight, antiques, and bad poetry; important scenes filmed in a cathedral and cemetery; the grey-on-black color palette, interspersed with the red of omnipresent fires; the industrial-goth soundtrack; even the fishnets that Eric and Shelly's youthful ward Sarah is way too young to wear. "Occult modern fantasy" deserves more explanation: it is a genre whose central idea is that "Great Weirdness Lurks Just below the Surface," that bizarre aliens secretly visit our world or are being kept under wraps by a conspiratorial government, that disguised vampires and werewolves and other supernatural beings live covert lives among us while we mundanes go about our business, unaware. This was an implied theme in one of the most popular TV series of the early '90s, Twin Peaks; it was the principal theme of the most popular geek-TV series of the rest of the decade, The X Files; it informed the comic-book series The Sandman, whose godlike main characters flickered in and out of a "real world" filled with outre but ordinary people; it infused the game Vampire: The Masquerade, whose lurking, mafia-like vampires also appeared in a number of spinoff novels and a ghastly TV series; it was the central conceit, applied with great wit, in the buddy-cop/sci-fi comedy Men in Black; and it was skillfully inverted by the Wachowskis in The Matrix. You can put just about any kind of horror, sci-fi, or fantasy content on the screen, producers seemed to say, as long as it's subtle and covert, and as long as the setting is still recognizably our own world. The Crow lacks the paranoid, conspiratorial edge of X-Files or The Matrix, but it is still much more of an occult fantasy than a four-color superhero movie. Its setting, for all the gothic trappings, is a down-to-earth one, a gritty, rainy, run-down industrial city fleetingly identified as Detroit (hometown of James O'Barr, who wrote the graphic novel on which the film is based), where the only holiday is the organized arson spree known as Devil's Night. Its characters are almost entirely mundane: a motley assortment of low-lifes, junkies, and working stiffs, they know no heroes, either of the ordinary or super- variety, and they have no idea what to make of Eric Draven  Most fear him as a ghost or blow him off with jokes; only one other character, Top Dollar's sorcerous half-sister Myca (Bai Ling), understands who Draven has become. Like the other occult-mod-fantasy worlds mentioned above, it is a world we can imagine ourselves occupying, with characters - even a hero - we can imagine ourselves becoming.

I understand that a remake of The Crow, stripped of the gothic elements of the Alex Proyas film, is in development. Personally I think this is unnecessary, unless the director of the new film intends to make it a comedy. And to cast Paul Rudd in the lead. That, I would see.


The image above is from Wikimedia Commons. The Crow is copyright (c) 1994 by Miramax Films.

* I could have done without the drunken frat boys who sat behind me and said "The crow!" every time Draven's familiar appeared on screen.  It got old fast.

** "Mime from hell," for instance, isn't my line; it's Officer Albricht's.