Sunday, August 13, 2017

Into the Labyrinth...

I've watched Labyrinth, the Jim Henson film starring David Bowie as the immortal Jareth the Goblin King, exactly three times, and each time I've gotten something a little different from it. And yes, it's one of *those* films that are on my list of "movies that stuck with me".

Pictures: IMDB
I first watched the film when it released here in South Africa on the big screen, which would have been about six months to a year after its foreign release (thank you, apartheid-era government for the sanctions that meant we were perpetually behind everything happening elsewhere in the world). It would have been around 1987 (Labyrinth having released in 1986 in the US and elsewhere). Which meant I was nine or thereabouts, that deliciously awkward age when you're not a little kiddo anymore but you're not quite a preteen yet, and you're only just figuring out that you don't quite fit in anywhere.

I identified with Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), and Jareth scared the ever-loving crap out of me. For various reasons—that I'll go into. At the time, the SFX and puppetry was the top of its game for the film industry. Directors had to work around the limitations of technology, which in my mind led to some brilliant solutions (despite crappy blue screens). And there was an artistry to the film, and attention to detail with the sets that you rarely see with fantasy films these day (okay, maybe LotR et al). But there would be no convincing fire-breathing dragons, if you get my drift... A lot is suggested, left up to the imagination, or requires you to suspend disbelief when looking at a puppet and *not* thinking about the person behind (or inside) it making it come alive. Sets look like they've been set up on stage, and somehow the lack of realism didn't bother me as much back then as it kinda does now. (Horribly spoilt by CGI, I know.) Yet the artistry is undeniable, even if there is glitter EVERYWHERE.

Fast forward ten years... And I watched the film again, this time at the height of my gothness, with my then gothboy. And Labyrinth just fell flat. Okay, the what-the-fuckery of the musical interludes had dated horribly, and truth be told, the film would have been much stronger if some scenes had simply been cut (like those red, head-tossing, badly blue-screened puppets in the swamp). And I mean those tight pants. That left nothing to the imagination. And the bits that jiggled. Just as mesmerising and cringe-worthy as the first time I watched the film. What. The. Fuck. David Bowie.

When I was 19, I lost the ability to love the film. For me back then it was a steaming pile of what-the-fuckery. Also, I admit freely that I took myself waaay too seriously. After all, I had an image to uphold and MY GOD the 80s hairstyles, music... Too much.

I watched the film now, at the not-so-tender age of 39. Okay, I see what just happened. But I smiled, I laughed, and indulged.

Labyrinth has been on my mind a lot. A while back I read this article, which kinda stuck with me. Why is it that despite its glorious what-the-fuckery, this film has remained one that I can say with all honesty is part of my childhood? A film that I will often mention as being important, along with dreadful yet fabulous creations like Highlander, The Crow, Ladyhawke, and The Neverending Story, that I will reminisce about often. What does this film say about me and my particular world view? Is it that the context of the film is also important?

I admit that I'm busy writing a fic that's a crossover with another fandom I love, so I have particular reasons for revisiting Labyrinth. I even bought the 30-year anniversary novelisation of the film. (It's an okay read so far – not brilliant but fair.) I really feel like I need to wrap my head around the core themes and lore, because they're important (to me) on a meta level, if I'm going to cut to the quick of all my pondering.

The first thing that struck me with the rewatch was the awkward nature of the May/December relationship between 15-year-old Sarah and the ageless yet not-quite-young Jareth, who gives me the impression of ancient power that's stagnant, decaying even compared to the flush of Sarah's youth and her possible limitless potential. The sexual tension between the two is implied, never realised (this is kinda a children's film after all). Even at age nine I was aware of this dynamic between the two, especially the taboo nature of the possibility of the thing that is implied. That in itself was frightening. And somehow something to be anticipated too in my own future. This was especially clear later when Sarah finds herself immersed in a masked ball, garbed in a rather bridal white gown and she has her dance with Jareth. Near the end, though she has had help from her friends to reach the castle, she is clear that facing Jareth is something she needs to do on her own.

We need to admit that yes, teens are on the cusp of adulthood, so they will be confronting that change from childhood to adulthood. There is something altogether predatory about Jareth, yet at the same time Sarah *does* offer us a realisation of her own incipient feminine power. There is a shift in power happening here.

Yet there's another subtext to the film that, when viewed in the light of current norms, is decidedly *uncomfortable* – let's talk about that peach. My first thought was of the Wicked Queen offering Snow White that poison apple. In a similar fashion, the peach Jareth offers Sarah renders her insensible; she is diverted from her mission to rescue her baby brother Toby (even though it is her fault he was taken in the first place) and is horribly distracted by that decadent masked ball where she has her dance with Jareth. Cinderella much? A peach can symbolise many things, but some of the more common ones in Western mythology would be purity, innocence and yes, virginity. Later, when Sarah examines the peach after she's bitten into it, she finds that its heart is rotten and filled with worms. Yet a peach is also a symbol of the heart, and thereby desire. Jareth distracts Sarah by offering her what she *thinks* she desires. When she breaks from the spell of the masked ball, she's in a rubble heap where the inhabitants try to weigh her down with her past—the items she thinks may be important to her.

The common theme in the labyrinth is that nothing should be taken for granted; nothing is what it seems (think the Cleaners in the tunnels, that are all scary blades from the front but are revealed to be a mechanism powered by goblins from behind, or the fearsome gate guardian at the Goblin City which is just a giant mech powered by a little goblin in a cockpit that is easily overthrown once his identity is uncovered). The beauty Jareth offers hides a rotten core, and partaking of what he gives sickens one, draws you from your path. It's a wee bit like popping roofies into your date's drink too... Though I think this last was *possibly* not Jim Henson's intention, and it makes more sense that he's referencing the Snow White story.

But I'll echo here what was said over on the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books blog when they have a pull quote from the film's dialogue:

"Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for *you*! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?…I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave."

Jareth grants desires, and it's typical of faerie lore: Beware of what you ask. There is an interchange of power happening when Jareth takes on the aspects of Sarah's fears and desires, and the dance between the two (yes, I think the image of a masked ball was entirely intentional) is a subtle interplay of their coming together as polar opposites. Jareth is Sarah's animus. That's if we're going to get all Jungian. He exists because of her and for her in order to facilitate her own individuation. Okay. Enough big words.

I often feel that the animus is a useful way to explain our perennial fascination with the bad boy in literature, film and games. The anti-hero, villain, bad-boy protagonist all represent the wilder parts of ourselves that we wish to redeem, to assimilate into ourselves. They exist on the outskirts and are not afraid to push boundaries, to do the things that we fear, and for that we both love and loathe for they challenge our status quo. Fear and fascination often go hand in hand.

Picture: Pixabay
Our relationship with fear is important. It keeps us from being too comfortable. Jareth offers Sarah a glimpse into a world where her wildest fantasy—that there is some Goblin King who will shake the foundations of her world and grant her deepest desires exists. And, like many stories where wishes are granted, we don't always think these desires through. We don't always consider the outcomes of our wishes.

Toby is a responsibility that is laid on Sarah. She resents her brother, but she clearly loves the little interloper. Which older sibling hasn't felt that a younger brother or sister hasn't diminished the love and resources a parent lavishes on their offspring? She has to face the truth that she needs to become independent, which isn't an easy transition to make.

Another thought...

It's no accident either that Jareth transforms into an owl, a bird often associated with ill omen. Yet sometimes also with with wisdom, of a being that can see at night. It is both harbinger of doom and guardian in the deepest night. And in that, I think it's a perfect choice for our Goblin King. I'm also reminded of Rothbart, the evil sorcerer in the ballet Swan Lake, who transforms into an owl. It's also no surprise that when Sarah eventually comes into her own, Jareth is the one rendered powerless, and returns to his bird form. (You have no power over me.)

Sarah often cries out about how things are not fair, and as an older viewer, I can look at her situation and understand her confusion. She's not quite a child anymore, yet she is increasingly saddled with grown-up responsibilities, which she resents. Part of her journey through Jareth's labyrinth is accepting that burden (she insists on facing Jareth on her own, and rightly so). She is a lovely protagonist, in that we see her change, grow into herself. This change is perfectly represented by her attitude when she returns after defeating Jareth. Not only does she give Toby the bear Lancelot, a toy that she cherished so much and was the McGuffin that sparked her initial, ill-considered wish to have the Goblin King take that child away from her, but she packs away the artefacts of her past that were holding her back (the pictures of her absent mother, the music box, toys). She is ready to be the young woman she has grown into.

And yet, when she glances at her reflection in the mirror, and sees the friends she has made along the way (Ludo, Hoggle, Sir Didymus). She can see them in the mirror (illusion) but when she turns to look into her bedroom, they are not there. They are saying goodbye (yet another allusion to the end of childhood). In many stories, this would be it, the end of that make-believe, magical world of childhood and the sincerity of the friendships that are formed then. But instead of making the final cut, Sarah does not let go of that sense of wonder. She will grow up, but unlike many adults, she holds onto the magic of her youth. And that, my friends, is a lesson we can all learn.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Meet Bloody Parchment's Jason Mykl Snyman

Every SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment anthology has that one story that freaks me out beyond all measure. For the current anthology, South African Jason Mykl Snyman has the (dare I say, dubious?) honour of being That Author. Seriously, his "Mastication (The Wendigo Children)" is not for the faint of heart. I welcome him to my blog today to talk about writing ...  and well ... That Story (which you can pick up in the latest Bloody Parchment anthology).

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Hunger is the first thing which comes to mind. The kind of deep hunger which drives a person mad, provoking anxiety and desperation. That’s the easy way out. I would say the darkness lies in what one person would do to another, in order to survive, in times of extreme hopelessness.

What do you love the most about writing?

I try to tell stories that nobody else has told before. Failing that, I try to tell old stories in new ways. This is the first real horror story I’ve ever written. There’s nothing supernatural about it. No ghosts or creatures or aliens. It’s about ordinary people thrown into unordinary circumstances. Within the human condition, horror can be found anywhere, even in romance. That’s what I love about telling stories – the opportunity to display something real.

Paracelsus once wrote; ‘Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. Only the dosage determines whether it will heal or harm.’

Why does reading matter? 

As a writer, reading makes you a better writer. You pick things up whether you like it or not. One day those ideas might come to fruition, in their own ways. To anybody else, reading encourages the imagination, enhances understanding and develops your personality. People who do not read are not at all unintelligent, but if you’re not reading, you need to be doing an extreme amount of living to be interesting.

An excerpt from "Mastication (The Wendigo Children)"People aren’t very meaty, compared to cows or pigs or deer. The average human body can provide around twenty kilograms of fatty meat and other edible parts such as intestines, liver, heart or guilt-riddled brains. You could eat the skin too, but when Granny died it tasted like mothballs and leather. 
They starved in the land of sunsets, each day of glorious light falling too quickly, and all they had was the darkness and the nights spent shaking in each others’ arms, waiting for naked dusk to regain the snow-bound slopes. Their bellies were the thankless monsters of their very own horror story, never recalling past kindness, always wanting more the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

What other things have you written?

My Blog, The Strange Brontides

My short story "What If We Slept" appears in Short Story Africa's Terra Incognita.

"Small Town Blues – or – Things I Lost While Living" (Winner of the Kalahari Review January 2017 IGBY Prize)

"Sweetheart, What Have We Done?" (Jalada Afrika Language Edition) -

"Where The Rivers Go" (New Contrast Issue #172)

"Friday Night" (The Kalahari Review)

This year's SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition is currently open. Read more here.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Stormweaver (Changers of Chandris, #2) by AC Smyth

Stormweaver by AC Smyth (Changers of Chandris, #2) is another solid read from AC Smyth, in which we continue Sylas Crowchanger's mission eight years after the events that transpire in book one. He's older, perhaps a little wiser, and completely devoted to those under his care when he himself doesn't feel as if he's in control of his own powers, let alone his destiny. All the while, his (dare I say former?) lover Casian continues his Machiavellian activities while an angry mountain builds up to its catastrophic eruption.

This is a solid read, that examines such themes as racial intolerance and class struggles, forgiveness and mastery of dangerous challenges, and I'll stand by my previous assessment of book 1 in stating that this is the kind of writing that will appeal to those who enjoy their fantasy with a human touch. My inner editor wanted a bit more layering, deeper writing in some parts where I feel Smyth writes a bit fast, but as with book 1, this was not a deal-breaker for me in this case. The author has created a tangible, fascinating world populated with groups constantly in conflict. I find it hard to fault the story, except to say that at times I feel Casian does a bit too much evil-villain moustache-twirling, but I was sufficiently invested in the story to look past this.

I care sufficiently about Sylas and his plight to go onto book 3 – and this is a story that's easy on the eye, that despite the awful things that happen to characters, there is always a glimmer of hope. And that is all I'll say without dropping spoilers. If you love the idea of magical bird shifters who have a deep connection to their environment, then this might hit the mark.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

Fanfiction round-up, July 2017

I had two fics that pretty much absorbed me during July, to the detriment of my reading list (and I have a helluva lot of catching up to do for my regular subscriptions and favourites)… But here are two longer-form fics that I think are well worth the read… and my honest, unbiased opinion about them while we’re at it.

I’ve been reading Saarebitch’s Exalted (part 2 of the Death and the Maiden series that starts with Birthright for a while now. It’s long, convoluted, and while the writing isn’t perfect (they have a tendency of writing redundant constructions and sometimes the pacing flags) but I’m totally blown away by the depth and the breadth of the intrigue they manage to weave into the story. We follow the struggles of Elain Lavellan, the Maiden of the Hunt of Clan Lavellan, and how her ambitions cause her to damage all those around her (and herself). Her friend Sa’reen is the Inquisitor in this setting, so sometimes we slip to her point of view. This is very much a tale of how the elven people are fighting to reclaim their past glories, and is centred on the conflict in Wycombe. What I especially love is the way characters experience conflict in dialogue. Saarebitch is brilliant in this sense. However, be warned, the chapters are long (anywhere between 4k to 8k at a pop) so you’re going to have *a lot* of reading. I’d say this story is like the Game of Thrones of Dragon Age fanfics. I suspect I’ve been reading the updates to this one for more than a year.

The fic that kept me busy for most of July was Mind Games by ThirdPretender. It’s still a WiP, and it's a slow burn for those of us who’re unrepentant Solasmancers, and the writer dishes out plenty of unghhghhhghghghhh. I will say that I’m a bit over blow-by-blow re-envisionings of Inquisition, but ThirdPretender offers up fresh insights, and the extra-fun angle where the narrator is sucked into the game through a manky kind of new-fangled VR, turning this into a portal fantasy too, with Emily/Ellana getting into all sorts of trouble when player knowledge affects character knowledge. Also, the writing’s pretty schweet too, pacing is excellent, and the story keeps me going on to the next chapter. Some *lovely* dialogue going on and a squidge more depth to this fic than your run-of-the-mill stories out there. I’ve subscribed, and I hope to see this story go through to the end.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

In brief: Bloody Parchment's Icy Sedgwick

Icy Sedgwick is a veteran of the SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition with her particular brand of quirky gothic tales that dig deep into mythology and history, specifically with her love for ancient Egypt. Her story "Midnight Screams at Holborn" ask what happens if a brave young man decides to take up a bet to spend the night in a haunted train station.

If you're yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you can do so right here at Amazon. But, without further ado, let's chat with Icy...

What darkness lies at the heart of your story?
I've always been fascinated by abandoned or 'lost' tube stations, and the British Museum station is a particular favourite. After all, how many stations can boast a legend of an Egyptian princess ghost? I knew that a newspaper had offered a cash prize for anyone willing to spend the night in the station, so I decided to slam the legend and the truth together.

Essentially, I think it's about the power of curiosity and the lengths people will go to when they really want something. Not to mention the strange things that must lie beneath a city as old as London.

What do you love the most about writing?
Seeing the story come to life. It's one thing having a cool idea bouncing around inside your head, but it's quite another to see that actually appear on the page. Once you've got it out of your mind and turned it into something tangible, you can share it with other people.

Why does reading matter?
It's a great way to expand your horizons. Few forms of media really give you the opportunity to step into someone else's shoes. Video games are great at putting you into a situation, where your actions cause things to happen to you. Films let you see the world as another person. But films are quite passive and video games lay everything out for you. Books require you to use your imagination and I think it's the space between imagined experience and the story that helps to increase your empathy. Plus it's a better way to spend your time than endlessly scrolling through Facebook.

An excerpt from "Midnight Screams at Holborn"...
Marnie put the board on the bench beside her and then unscrewed the lid off her flask to pour herself a cup of coffee. Simon fished out his own flask and did the same.
“Here’s to a night of ghost hunting!” Marnie held up her cup.
Simon knocked his cup against hers, toasting the evening with coffee. He drank quickly, wrapping his fingers around the cup to steady his hands. He’d never spent a whole night with Marnie before. What would people say if they found out she was down here with him?
“What did anyone tell you about the ghosts?” she asked after she’d drained her cup.
“I was given this,” replied Simon, handing over the pamphlet, “but everyone just focuses on the Egyptian princess. How many ghosts are there?”
“Mostly people just talk about the princess, but I’ve heard all sorts of stories. Most stations have at least one ghost. Wouldn’t it be fun if they walk the tunnels at night, and pop up in each other’s stamping ground? I suppose they must get dreadfully bored otherwise. Wouldn’t you?” Marnie pouted.
“The pamphlet says you can hear the screams of the princess all the way down the tunnel at Holborn,” said Simon.

What other things have you written? 
I have two series on the go. The Grey O'Donnell Series are Westerns, though book 2 veers into weird Western territory. I tried to focus on the more pulp/adventure side of the genre. So the books are fun adventure romps, rather than Cormac McCarthy-style Westerns. Book 1 is The Guns of Retribution which you can buy here.

My second series is the Underground City books. The first one, The Necromancer's Apprentice, emerged after a throwaway comment; I wondered what The Sorcerer's Apprentice would look like with mummies instead of brooms! I'm hoping to get book 2, The Necromancer's Rogue, out by the end of 2017. You can buy book 1 here on Amazon or here for other retailers.

I also have a collection of short stories available for free on my website. The stories were all previously published elsewhere but I pulled them together for the Harbingers collection. We've got angry Greek goddesses, a steampunk revenge story, Resurrection men, and even the Black Death in there. You can get your copy here.

Field Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa by Estrela Figueiredo, Gideon Smith & Neil Crouch

Anyone who knows me well will be aware of one of my favourite hobbies – collecting succulent plants. The bug first bit me when my mom and dad took me to some big flower show held in Cape Town during the 1980s, and the bought me an argyroderma that I, predictably, murdered by the time the first winter came round. Later lithops species I owned didn't fare much better, however my aloes are my pride and joy, and I now have several species flourishing in my garden. So to say I love the succulent flora of southern Africa is a wee bit of an understatement.

It goes without saying that I collect books on succulent flora too, however I do admit to having been a bit more restrained about this habit since our house isn't getting any bigger and we've officially run out of shelf space ... well, okay, I lie, if there's a book I really want, I make a plan.

Of course when the new Field Guide to Succulents of Southern Africa by Estrela Figueriedo, Gideon Smith and Neil Crouch came out this year, I was all about the grabby fingers. Field guides are *incredibly* useful, and one that is as comprehensive as this rather hefty little volume, makes it a must-have on any serious plant collector's shelf. Of course the thing is, as with most field guides, there's limited space for how much information can be packed in for all the species, but I was suitably impressed by the comprehensive nature of this particular title.

The introductory sections do the job of highlighting the incredible diversity and vulnerability of succulent flora in this region, and is then divided into the various species. I've always considered myself to be reasonably well educated about succulent flora, especially in South Africa, but even I learnt a few new facts. (Also, I had the horrors of realising that the Latin names have changed for the aloes, which means I now have new names to memorise.)

However, what this book has done is remind me that there are still many species I'd really love to collect, especially the carrion flowers, assorted mesembs and, yes, even more aloes. And I could do with a few more euphorbias while I'm at it...

What's great about this book is it's just the right size to take out with you in the veld, because yes, the husband and I are the types of people who'll go for a walk in the Karoo then not get very far as we start crouching about likely spots to see which succulent species we can discover. (I'm sure passers-by must wonder what on earth is going on.)

The downside with the ease of use for this book is that it packs in a *huge* amount of information in a small space – pictures might be on the small side, and facts offered are just enough to give you a jump start for further research. And maybe that's exactly what makes this little book such a treasure. This field guide has a permanent place on my bookshelves, and I'd early love, love, love to see the publisher to bring out bigger, coffee table books that focus on the different families. The carrion flowers on their own already deserve special treatment...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Queen of Fire by Anthony Ryan

A while back I stumbled across a fresh voice in military-driven fantasy that had me hopping up and down and excitement – Anthony Ryan, who first caught my notice with his coming-of-age story of the warrior Vaelin Al Sorna in the Raven's Shadow trilogy that begins with Blood Song. To my eternal regret, I let way too much time pass between reading books one through to three. There is a large cast of characters to keep tabs on by book the time you hit Queen of Fire, and I could definitely have benefited from having had the earlier story at front of mind. So don't be dumb-ass like Auntie Nerine. If you're going to start with Blood Song, and you've enjoyed it, and you intend to read the rest, get at this trilogy back to back if you can.

I'll echo what I felt with book two, that Ryan's decision to include new viewpoint characters after Blood Song was a good idea. He keeps the story going and fresh, especially considering that Vaelin's heroic arc is pretty much spent after the events that transpire in book one. By book three he still plays a pivotal role, but he's one of many who each have a crucial task to perform, often under extremely trying circumstances.

Book three is all about wreaking vengeance, and the mighty Volarian empire is about to suffer for the great wrongs they committed against Vaelin, Lyrna and their people. Not just that, but we learn more about the mysterious and frightening Ally and its aeons of evil, twisty machinations. Old friends (I won't spoil) return, and much blood is spilled. In fact, I suspect Ryan is snapping on GRRM's heels when it comes to death, betrayal and strategy gone wrong. Characters are often put through the wringer, and watching how they regain their footing is half the thrill. And trust me, don't ever get too comfortable with a character's situation – Ryan can and will pull that metaphorical rug out from beneath their feet again and again. Awful things happen to people who often have been brought to the end of their tethers. Just expect to be kicked in the feels. Ryan knows how to do this well. Though thank dog he didn't reduce me to ugly crying the way Robin Hobb does regularly. I can only manage one ugly-tears-crying book a year and I've already had my quota for 2017.

Queen of Fire is an action-packed, epic conclusion for Vaelin and the companions I've gotten to know and love. A special mention goes to Reva, whose bravery and daring is unparalleled; I suspect she'd give even Wonder Woman a run for her money. The world building is complex and textured, and you get the idea that there's loads of history just beneath the surface that is never quite fully revealed – and I love it when authors understand how to layer on the mystery of ancient pasts. And yusssss, I'm already looking forward to sinking my teeth into the next Anthony Ryan novel I've got sitting on my shelf.