Saturday, October 31, 2015

Four Squares 4: A Bad Dream Primer

It's Halloween in the Monkeyhouse, and as a family we'e surrendered to its American Victorian trappings and just gone with it. I can pimp up a doorway with fake spiderweb like the best of 'em, and having family around with kids of Jet Jr's age gave us an opportunity to use his birthday party decorations from an abandoned attempt last year. So, on that note of ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, here's a book review.

Like a lot of followers of Hypnogoria I am of course in great envy of Mr Jim Moon's Great Library of Dreams, and as a sometime librarian I would have to admit that I too would love to have my own collection of ephemera and weird literature.  I don't, however, hence the intact marriage among other things like being able to move around inside the Monkeyhouse. I do own this, though, and it forms part of my very very small gentleman's collection of dark folklorey literature.

Time Life's mid-1980s Enchanted World series was a surprisingly vast and thorough collection of around twenty volumes about myth, folklore, superstition, legends and such. While I cut my teeth on Usborne's triple threat of its Mysterious World books, as a child and teen I never found anything to equal it in content and look, until I canched upon this volume in the Dunedin Public Library. Oh my youth, my young adulthood - the notion that I'd spentd up to three hours perusing the folklore section of a public library for Dungeons and Dragons ideas seems at once both quaint and alarming, but reader, I did. My Uni days were very dry days in roleplaying (for which I am actually quite grateful), but discovering this text, literally set alongside great works by Katherine M Briggs and Jorge Luis Borges, rekindled my interest in simple storytelling and creepy social psychology, untrapped from the stats and To Hit charts of the D&D manuals.

Nadilla, Persian vampire or ghoul?
Night Creatures, like other titles in The Enchanted World, is a long-form work, separated into chapters, but otherwise moving fluidly between imaginative storytelling (Beowulf, the Croglin Vampire et al) and scholarly interpretation. It's a surprisingly mature read, and contains some of the most atmospehric and in places downright grim illustrations I've ever seen in such a text - which, to be honest, is part of its apeal. It takes things seriously; its universal trinity of vampires, werecreatures and hags are all depicted as murky, shadowy and bestial shapes, among its roster of artists (including Tolkien great John Howe)  one Marshall Arisman, who uses a kinetic Francis Bacon-like brush in his pieces, adding to the overall memorable effect. This book stuck in my head for years, and whenn it recently appeared in a local secondhand book shop, I snapped it up on the spot.

Not seen: Annis' collection of child pelts. Yikes.
This work actually did what I hoped it would back in the day, rebooting my interest in traditional ghost stories and weird tales, and introducing me to previously-unheard of horros, like Black Annis, Rawhead and Bloodybones and their kin. It strove to be fairly international, in its coverage, although understandably sticks close to Europe, by way of Japan and Persia; plus it's a damned-fine looking book. I've been tempted to pick up other volumes in the series, but for the moment this is the daddy, and occupies pride of place in the upper shelves of the Simian Collection

Friday, October 30, 2015

Four Squares 3: Heigh-Ho!

The Chills Silver Bullets

Nineteen years is a long time between drinks.  The last full-length album from Martin Phillipp's band was 1996's Sunburnt, which came out long after my own interest in the band had diminished. There have been releases since then - some compilations of singles and song-doodles (Secret Box, a three-disc example of the latter is a rare find and worth the effort hunting it down), even an EP - but this is the real deal. And to be honest, something of a surprise.

2015 has been a boon of a music year for me, with Dad Rock literally coming out of the walls with not only re-releases of older acts' music (most recently Jean Paul Sartre Experience's own thriple-disc set I Like Rain), but in many cases surprising new releases from vintage acts. More on them in other posts, though. Suffice it to say, that when the past comes knocking, my curiosity is piqued, and when it comes knocking as strongly as this album does, with very little to show for how the years have genuinely condemned Phillipps and his ever-changing (but more recently solidified) roster, then I get excited.

The history of The Chills, like many Flying Nun acts, is one beset with calamity, and after the heights of their early Nineties triumphs there may be no act from the label more befitting an Icarus-like biography than Martin Phillipp's group. I'd pretty much written this mythical album - its title hinted at as far back as a Listener article in 1990, well and truly off - not to mention its creator. Phillipp's liquidity, and later descent into drug addiction and the resulting toll on his health did nothing to dampen my pessimism. A return to form for a leader now being chased by his fifties, I thought, would be nothing short of a miracle.

This is one, though. The sound of this album is as though the years between Silver Bullets and 1990's Submarine Bells never happened. It's an assured return, with gentle, melodic compositions that recall The Chills at their height, pre-Gruge, pre-recording contract collapse, pre-addiction and illness - pre-Soft Bomb and Sunburnt. It's not perfect, but for a Chills album it's damned near close.

There are some real highlights here - 'America Says Hello' is one of the better outward-loking songs Phillipps chooses, amidst a suite that I don't really think are a strong one for him. Social comment floundered on Soft Bomb, and there are echoes of that album's 'Background Affair' in this and Silver Bullets' ambitious, Wilson-esque 'Pyramid/When The Poor Can Reach The Moon'. Similarly, 'Aurora Corona''s prayer to Gaia is more heavy-handed than the earlier 'Underwater Wasteland' - in fact, the album's first half is its srongest; but that said, 'Warm Waveform' is a splendid opener, with some great guitar work and whispered vocals, and I have a soft spot for 'Liquid Situation', near-monumental, but tantalisingly over too soon. The closing couplet of sing-song 'Tomboy' and 2014's upbeat anniversary release 'Molten Gold' round things out well, and point towards a sound future, and I'll be there this time. Nothing much may change, but be grateful that nothing much has, because in a music career this interrupted, miracles are worth celebrating.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Four Squares 2: Golden Years

I'm back watching The Flash, and still really enjoying it. This year the particle accelerator which made our hero's metahuman enemies is gone, replaced by a wormhole singularity which is now feeding him bad guys from a parallel Earth - Earth 2. And, of course, it has also brought in this guy:

 Yeah! Jay Garrick, baby!

The version of the Flash from Earth 2 or, as we might otherwise know him, 'old 1940s Flash' or thereabouts. It's one of the many cool things about the show that it has actually been this series which has ushered in the established comics model of multiple worlds. It was a concept that originated in the Flash comics, and it's given the show a boost that it didn't yet need, but which in an expanded DC TV universe, needs no futher explanation.

I also love the look of Jay Garrick, with his slight Dieselpunk look and the Mercury kettle helmet. Hell, I like mostly all of the old school hero costumes with only a few exceptions, and their heroes' grouping, the Justice Society of America is a territory that I also think is rich for mining.

One of the other things I did leading up to season 2 was re-connect with the Golden Age of [DC] super heroes. The sole comic I own representing that era is a revisionist story The Untold Origin of the Justice Society collected into a tidy A5-ish pocket comic book, which I picked up from a local dairy years ago on the way to an intermediate school camp. Though I never reconnected with the story or the characters, I do still really like them. In their best stories there's a simple honesty to them that genuinely evokes a Wartime, pre-Marvel era, where many of the Justice Society's members nod more to their detective comics origins - millionaires and scientists sworn to thwart crime with gadgets, physical superiority and very limited superpowers.

I also picked up a few JSA collections from the local library, the best example being The Justice Society Returns!, which owes more than a debt to the aforementioned origin story, but builds other characters into the mix and heightens the profile of some more enduring, second-tier heroes; so out go Superman and Batman, but the likes of Hourman and Johnny Thunder get a much-deserved promotion. It's a pretty good, serialised story all told, with all the major players essentially getting a chapter of their own, and if there's a deluxe reprint - well, I'd be tempted to get it.

But as I say above, I think this is an era still ripe for use in today's comic book entertainment world. There are examples already of period-era heroes - Marvel's Captain America and its spin-off Agent Carter are obvious examples, and of course DC's Earth 2, the home of its Golden Age heroes, is now a Flash/Arrow-verse reality - and of course before he was making Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, director Zack Snyder cut his superhero teetch with the Minute Men of the Watchmen cinematic adaptation. 2017 will see a Wonder Woman movie which will tell a story spread over several decades, including the Second World War - perhaps it's not unreasonable to expect a few cameos there?

For me, though, the appeal of the Golden Age superhero is one of relatability. I will never have super powers or wield fantastic gas guns, magic rings or rods of power, but the vulnerability and human frailty of many of these early year super heroes is something I find more and more interesting as time goes by.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Four Squares 1: The New Pod

Well, that hardly escalated at all.

It's been a busy month, and the month is almost over. My big October of RPG-blogging never happened - although I have been listening to a lot of SaveOrDie. Nevertheless, besides family stuff and work stuff I have fitted a few more things in. Like this:

Beyond the Sofa is another podcast I'm part of, after dipping my toe in the waters of Zeus Pod last year and watching and listening to it become the modest success that co-founder Jono Park made it. Zeus Pod is curently on hiatus while Jono works on his new life project, being a dad.

Coincidentally, BTS was born as a project between me and my good friend and fellow Dad and fan, David Ronayne.

Unlike Zeus Pod, BTS is a little less-focused on the new Doctor Who series, and in fact tok an element of my last Zeus Pod appearance as its kicking-off point. Two episodes in, and it's going well, and there's plenty more gas in the tank.

Also,we have a Facebook group. And a Twitter! And a gmail and a Soundcloud account!

Tune in!