Windows of the Soul

It is the early 2000s. The English department of a small college in upstate New York is scandalised when their resident Dickens expert Roger Croydon, a professor in his early sixties, leaves his wife for Veronica, a graduate student in her late 20s. After electively upending his own life in this fashion, Roger is then hit by a convulsive event not of his own making; Ted, his adult son who he’s always had a somewhat tricky relationship with, is killed whilst serving with the US Special Forces in Afghanistan. His work suffers; he is eventually asked to take a leave of absence. Eventually, he steps out for a walk one evening and simply disappears.

That, at least, is what the public story is. Only Veronica knows the other side of the story – and one day, she spontaneously decides to tell it to a fellow faculty member, a budding horror author who finds her personally grating but the mystery around Roger’s disappearance compelling enough to listen to her, on the off chance he’ll hear something to inspire him.

He is not disappointed – for Veronica is able to offer both hot goss and cold horror. Before being deployed to Afghanistan, Ted came to visit Roger, having learned about his marriage to Veronica and being outraged about it. Roger and Ted had an ugly argument which turned into a fight; the police were called, and the two men spent the night in the cells. When they parted ways the next day, Roger disowned Ted in the harshest possible terms – delivering cutting words so foul, so potent, that Roger had a heart attack on delivering them and Veronica believes she had a miscarriage as a result of them.

The curse’s potence seemed to come in part from Roger’s deep reserves of resentment for a son he regarded as a disappointment, and in part from Roger and Ted’s links to Belvedere House, the home Roger had formerly shared with Joanne; the place where they raised Ted; the building Veronica had a baffling vision of when she had her miscarriage. The place which seems to have played on Roger’s mind until, after Ted’s death, he buys out Joanne and arranges for him and Veronica to move in. The house which Roger will disappear from… and where the haunting will kick into high gear.

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Centuries of Women

Although social bias, unconscious institutional sexism, and unabashed misogyny are far from dead, in the current era of history women are in a much more equitable position than they have been in earlier eras; as a culture, we aren’t there yet, but we can look back in time and see how far society has come. At the same time, it’s tempting to assume that this progress has been a straight line, a gradual increase in justice over time building up to an exponential spike from the 20th Century onward.

This is misleading. In her preface to Femina, her latest book, Janina Ramirez argues that whilst medieval Europe was hardly a bastion of feminism, the position of women in society actually regressed in the intervening time. Hardline moralists among the Protestants in the early Renaissance were intent on pushing women even further into the sidelines than they already were; subsequent centuries found high society relegating nice, classy ladies to effectively ornamental roles; 19th Century historians were much enamoured of the Great Man theory of the field, an approach which overlooked the vast majority of women (and, indeed, everyone else whose impact on the course of history was less than that of a Napoleon or an Augustus).

As Ramirez explains it, this means that the women of the medieval period have had to endure several waves of marginalisation. Firstly, there was the extent to which they were or were not marginalised in their own lifetimes; then, however, there were the subsequent eras reinterpreting the past through their own ideological lenses, lenses which would tend to exacerbate the effect. Ramirez named this book Femina after an annotation used in Reformation-era library catalogues compiled by censorious individuals assessing which books were worth keeping and which should be dispensed with as relics of an era of Catholic decadence; “Femina” designated a text as being by a woman, and would tend to be a point in favour of its removal.

Ramirez is not out to romanticise the medieval period here – but she also argues that there is a course correction needed in how we imagine them. We’re often quick to go to the most grimdark interpretation of them, without considering that this is in effect reiterating stale post-Reformation propagnada, framing the period as an age of barbarism to political ends. Yes, we should remember the inequalities of the time – but if we focus on them exclusively and don’t look at the women who thrived by either outright defying them or deftly navigating them, we limit ourselves to imagining a Middle Ages where only men mattered.

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Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Part 1: A Magnificent Saga, Executed Perfectly

I’ve reviewed a fair number of Gene Wolfe novels and series and short story collections on here (and back in the Ferretbrain days), but I’ve held off on trying to tackle his longest and most elaborate series – the Solar Cycle, comprising the constituent series of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun novels. I did that because I was seriously intimidated about the prospect of tackling it.

The first series in the cycle – the New Sun novels featuring Severian the torturer, is particularly challenging. The series uses a lot of archaic language – though less neologisms than you may think, and generally speaking you can get a rough sense of what the unfamiliar words mean from context. It is presented from the perspective of an unreliable narrator who doesn’t seem to be purposefully trying to trick you, but doesn’t always understand what he is encountering. And its setting superficially appears to use a lot of standard fantasy tropes, only to be revealed as a far stranger science fantasy affair as matters progress.

Still, I think it’s high time I tackled it, not least because the longer I spent prevaricating about reviewing it, the longer I was putting off re-reading it, and I loved it when I last tackled it over a decade ago. Let’s see how well it’s aged – and how much I can get out of it on a second read-through.

The Shadow of the Torturer

It is a staggering number of years in the future. The Sun has dimmed and begins to turn red; the Moon was terraformed long ago, and so rather than being silver it is green; and the Earth (or, as it is now known, Urth) has become a cosmic backwater. Here and there evidence can be found of its inhabitants travelling among the stars – flora, fauna, and visitors from offworld crop up here and there, and ancient towers may prove to be decommissioned starships.

One such tower sits in the Citadel of the vast city of Nessus; known as the Matachin Tower, it is the residence of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence… otherwise known as the Guild of Torturers, tasked with the excruciation, interrogation, and execution of the “clients” the authorities commit into their care. Like the rest of the innumerable guilds of the Citadel, the Torturers have accumulated a mass of traditions, rituals, and their own curious internal ethics over the long years of their service to the line of Autarchs who have ruled over this portion of the world (the Commonwealth) since time immemorial.

Severian was, as tradition demands, adopted by the Guild when a small child, having been a foundling. He has been raised among his brothers in the Guild; he knows of little else. However, one day on a night-time jaunt outside of the Tower, Severian gets separated from his friends and encounters Vodalus, an infamous rebel against the Autarch, and Vodalus’ partner Thea. Later, as Severian rises through the ranks of the apprentices, the Chatelaine Thecla – the sister to Thea – is confined to the Matachin Tower, in what is rumoured to be a bid to exert leverage on Vodalus.

Tasked with the care of Thecla, Severian falls in love with her; complicit in the first of an extensive schedule of tortures to be inflicted on her, Severian leaves his knife behind in her cell on purpose, allowing her to commit suicide to escape the rest of her mandated punishment. To save face, the Guild decide to send him away – members of the Guild have on occasion been called on to act as executioners outside of the capital, and the northern town of Thrax is in need of just such an official. But with Nessus so vast it takes days to merely walk out of town, there is plenty of opportunity for Severian to encounter danger before he even leaves the city. Danger, and perhaps also miracles – but will he recognise the latter when he sees them?

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Folk Horror Festival, Part 2: When Eyes of Fire Are Crying Blue Sky

Time for another dip into Severin Films’ absurdly expansive All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set. This time around, I’m going to dig into some homegrown indie American folk horror – a treat so nice, Severin included it twice…

Eyes of Fire

It is 1750, in colonial America. Eccentric preacher Will Smythe (Dennis Lipscombe) and his followers have been turned out of their home, after the townsfolk objected to him carrying on with a married woman, Eloise Dalton (Rebecca Stanley). Included in the party is Leah (Karlene Crockett), who arrived in the region with Will when he emigrated, and whose antisocial behaviour and tendency towards being nonverbal or speaking in tongues, and her personal history as the daughter of a woman burned for witchcraft, mean there’s no place for her back in the town. Joining them after a while is Marion Dalton (Guy Boyd) – Eloise’s husband and the father of her children, who catches up with them after returning from a hunting and trapping trip to discover them fled. Unable to convince Eloise to leave the group (or let him take the kids), he elects to stay with them, the better to ensure their survival.

They will need him – for they have strayed into the borderland between English, French, and Shawnee-held territory; the French don’t take kindly to English and Irish settlers horning in on their turf, and the Shawnee have absolutely no sense of humour about colonist incursions (and, given subsequent history, nor should they). When the group stumble across a valley which the Shawnee have symbolically marked as being anathema, they realise that, precisely because of this, the Shawnee won’t pursue them there. When they take a look, they find dilapidated but still repairable cabins from an abandoned settlement, and decide to move in, with the plan to eventually make this the nucleus of a new town.

However, though the Shawnee aren’t coming after them, someone is definitely messing with them. Cavorting, filthy, naked figures are seen in the distance, and a string of strange incidents take place. There’s the child (Rose Preston) left behind for the group to discover; what is her deal? What happened to Fanny Dalton (Sally Klein) when she disappeared and was found in a coma? And what’s with the faces growing out of some of the trees – faces which nobody except Leah seems to notice at first?

As it turns out, the Shawnee shunned the valley for damn good reasons – it is the abode of a malevolent entity (Russell James Young Jr.) of some manner, whether it be a witch or a genius loci or a malign deity or whatever. Whatever the nature of the entity is, Will’s preaching and spurious claims of miracles are no power against it. In fact, the only member of the group who seems to get a handle on what’s really going on – let alone being able to do anything about it – is Leah. Is Leah simply very neurodivergent – either from being born on the spectrum or through her mental equilibrium being wrecked by what was done to her mother? Or is she, like little Meg (Erin Buchanan) believes, a creature of faerie?

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Folk Horror Festival, Part 1: She-Wolves, Spooky Nuns, and Satanic Australians

Late last year Severin Films put out All the Haunts Be Ours, an utterly stuffed to the gills boxed set of folk horror treats, comprising some 19 movies, plus an epic three-hour documentary on the genre, plus a deep bench of short films and other bonuses. Most of the films in it are lesser-known attempts, with some having been almost wholly unavailable until their rerelease here, and I’ve finally gotten around to cracking into it, and I’ll see about reviewing the movies in this article series.

Wilczyca

It is the middle of the 19th Century. As turmoil grips Poland, Kacper (Krzysztof Jasiński) – a small-time boyar and a veteran of the national liberation struggle – returns home to find his wife Maryna (Iwona Bielska) on her deathbed, having sought a botched abortion. Kacper knows full well that the child couldn’t have been his; between comments by his family physician, Dr. Goldberg (Henryk Machalica), and by his brother, Mateusz (Jerzy Prażmowski), it becomes apparent that Maryna was running wild in Kacper’s absence, drinking to excess, cavorting with wild company, and getting involved in honest to goodness black magic, and generally being such a hellraiser that Mateusz insists on sticking a good stout stake through her heart when they bury her.

Disgusted by the whole torn of events, Kacper turns his back on the family estate, leaving Mateusz to manage it whilst he goes to work as the steward of Count Ludwig (Stanisław Brejdygant), an old comrade from the insurrection. Alas, the political winds have started to blow the other way – and the Count must go into exile in Hungary for a while. He leaves his house in Kacper’s care – along with his wife, the Countess Julia (also played by Bielska).

Julia, for her part, is more interested in being “taken care of” by her maid, Heloise (Hanna Stankówna) – and then quickly takes up with Otto (Olgierd Łukaszewicz), a studly Hussar captain she knew before the political troubles and who is in command of the forces who sweep in to occupy the region and use the mansion as their headquarters after the Count departs. Against this backdrop, a series of eerie events begins to convince Kacper that Maryna has returned from the dead somehow – and that she has somehow possessed or otherwise corrupted Julia. As the incidents mount, the stage is set for a terrible confrontation…

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Avati’s Geography of Death, Fulci’s Visions of Murder

Giallo, like the slasher movies the field would later influence, generally represented a non-supernatural take on the horror genre – presenting a similar emphasis on scares and shocks, but deriving them from mundane acts of murder and mayhem, not from paranormal gribblies. At the same time, many giallo directors would also make their fair share of more flat-out supernatural horror – and in addition, occasionally they would cross the streams between the genres. For this article, I’m going to take a look at one supernatural horror film which draws on giallo and one giallo which draws on supernatural horror, both hailing from Italian directors who worked in both fields.

Zeder

Stefano (Gabriele Lavia) is a budding author whose wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas) buys him a birthday present – a vintage electric typewriter. It happens to include the old ribbon – so in a fit of curiosity Stefano takes a look at it, for it contains the impression of everything written on the typewriter since the last time the written was changed. What he finds is bizarre – correspondence and reports written by the previous owner of the typewriter, the defrocked priest Luigi Costa.

These materials suggest that Costa and others were exploring a bizarre theory: that dotted around the world are mysterious locations, so called “K-Zones”, where a particular conjunction of geological factors overcomes the barrier between life and death. Fascinated by this – and realising the potential for a dynamite plot for his next novel – Stefano begins investigating further. His determination to get to the bottom of this only grows when it becomes apparent that certain individuals are taking a strange interest in the affair. As it turns out, there is a conspiracy out to further this research – one which isn’t averse to murder, and which may even have the power to make the police complicit in their cover-ups.

Worse yet, the research is profoundly dangerous. Thirty years ago, it unleashed unbelievable horror; indeed, one of the conspirators, the psychic Gabriella Goodman (Paola Tanziani in the present-day scenes, Veronica Moriconi in the flashbacks to the 1950s) was maimed in the process. Yet she and her colleagues are only more and more determined to see their search to the end… even if opening the gates of death unleashes undead terror…

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From Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z

How many people have read Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes recently? Sure, sure, it gets regular reprints, but you don’t see people enthusing about it that much; whilst most books adapted into movies have healthy contingents of fans who insist that the film just isn’t the same as the original novel, I suspect that these days almost everyone who glances at the original novel has experienced and enjoyed one of the movie adaptations first, most likely the original. Boulle’s 1963 novel was a modest success, sure, but the 1968 movie was a critical and commercial mega-hit, a pop cultural landmark, and has the most famous twist ending since “Rosebud was his sled”.

It also was the start of a five-film series, with one sequel a year popping out like clockwork from 1970 to 1973. An argument can definitely be made for the Planet of the Apes saga being the biggest Hollywood science fiction franchise before Star Wars came along; certainly, other than 2001: A Space Odyssey, big-budget SF which took itself semi-seriously was a scarcity in Hollywood at this time, the genre largely being left to cheap and cheerful B-movies. But did the original movie merit this treatment – and if so, did it get the sequels it’s deserve? Let’s review.

Planet of the Apes

The original movie really requires no introduction, not least because the Twilight Zone-quality twist ending (provided by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, who co-wrote the script): Charlton Heston plays George Taylor, who thinks his wayward space mission has left him on a planet where apes evolved from men, only to find it was Earth all along when he encounters the wreckage of the Statue of Liberty. This, however, overlooks a lot about the movie, some of which has aged poorly and some of which remains interesting.

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The Animated Frontier

It’s weird how thoroughly Star Trek: The Animated Series got flushed down the memory hole for a while, Gene Roddenberry and Paramount mutually deciding that the series wasn’t canon, and was not worth revisiting. In that 1990s era when Star Trek repeats were a regular fixture on the BBC schedules, The Animated Series never got a look in. When it aired in 1973-1974, it was the first significant chunk of new official Trek content since The Original Series got cancelled, and it actually won an Emmy; arguably, without that, you don’t get The Motion Picture, the movie series following on from that, and The Next Generation and its followups.

In more recent years, however, Paramount seem to have warmed to The Animated Series; they acknowledge it more, writers in new Trek series are making more references to it, and whilst there has not been a specific announcement that it’s canon again, it seems to be more or less be treated as such. Between DVD and Blu-Ray sets and the entire series being available for streaming (on Netflix in the UK, I guess it’s probably on Paramount+ in the US), it’s never been easier to dip into it. For this article, I’m going to do that – in part to offer my thoughts on the series itself, but also because I think it’s interesting to compare it to the current cartoon Star Trek offering, Lower Decks.

The first episode, Beyond the Farthest Star, pretty much sets up what to expect from The Animated Series. On the one hand, the animation is often a little rudimentary – there’s lots of shots where little beyond the characters’ mouths are moving, some use of silhouettes is used to cut corners, and where material can be recycled it is. All of these are sins of 1970s-vintage American TV animation, of course, but it’s still potentially off-putting.

That said, the episode also nicely showcases the possibilities of the new show. Thanks to the ample availability of footage from the original show to rotoscope, the animators are able to get the look of the returning cast down just fine. There’s also new characters. Lt. Arex, who replaces Chekov on the bridge because the production team didn’t want to shell out for Walter Koenig (James Doohan provides the voice for him) is a three-armed alien of a sort which it would have been difficult for 1960s-vintage practical effects to pull off, and the still shots in the episode depicting this astonishing alien ship are fantastic. Later, the episode The Time Trap depicts a council consisting of a large number of alien races – something it would have required a significant cast to pull off, each with separate makeup and prosthetic requirements to pull off using practical effects.

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Ooops – Accidental Publication

Apologies to anyone whose RSS feeds or similar told them about an article dropping today entitled “The Animated Frontier” – I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save draft” on an article reviewing Star Trek: The Animated Series (and offering some thoughts on how Lower Decks sits in the current Star Trek landscape) and didn’t notice I’d done so for about half an hour. It’s gone back to draft mode now.

Terrifying Galaxies and a Bigfoot Big Farce

The early 1980s saw the fading away of the grindhouse cinema and the rise of the VHS player, ensuring a continued market for movies which sold themselves primarily on the basis of explicit sex and violence and then worried about the artistry as a secondary concern, at least as far as the distributors’ thinking went. Sometimes this led to incongruous results. For this article I’m going to look at a couple of movies which both fit into well-worn genre models – the sci-fi horror space yarn Galaxy of Terror and the Bigfoot-themed monster movie Night of the Demon – which have been rereleased on Blu-Ray lately by 88 Films. Both of them go for a violent, gore-filled take on their subject matter, and both of them end up throwing in incongruously explicit sexual content as cheap pandering to distributors eager for edgy content. The results are… mixed.

Galaxy of Terror

At the edge of known space, the mysterious Master oversees the world of Xerxes. When a distress signal from the mysterious planet Morganthus is received, the Master assigns Ilvar (Bernard Behrens) to personally oversee a rescue mission, dispatching the starship Quest with a hand-picked crew. When they arrive onworld, they find the ship that sent the distress signal apparently abandoned, but are unable to account for all the crew.

Nearby, they discover an enormous pyramid, the product of some sort of biomechanical technology; Ilvar decides that if there’s a chance survivors are there, then the terms of the Master’s orders mean that they have to investigate. This dooms them to come face to face with terrors born out of their own psyches; whoever survives to the end will discover the secret of the pyramid… and some disturbing truths about the Master.

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