Synthwave Criminals Driven To Extremes

One of the strangest things about nostalgia is the way it distorts and tweaks the eras it pines for. This isn’t always obvious when you are younger, because naturally you don’t have a basis for comparison when it comes to nostalgia for eras you didn’t live through, but once you get old enough that the decade of your birth becomes the nostalgia target du jour it becomes more obvious. Some things get heightened to the point of parody, other things are neglected by the collective memory, eventually the nostalgia material is on the verge of being its own genre that is almost distinct from the material it’s inspired by.

For this article, I’m going to take a look at Michael Mann’s Thief and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, the former an iconic 1980s crime movie which established genre tropes for the decade to come, the latter a synthwave pastiche of Thief and the material it inspired.


Thief opens with rain, dark urban landscapes, and synthesiser music – it’s Blade Runner without the science fiction. The first full-length feature from Michael Mann, it’s inspired by The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar by professional jewel thief John Seybold, AKA Frank Hohimer.

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Crowley In Small Doses

Regardless of what you think of his esoteric endeavours; you can’t deny that Aleister Crowley tried his hands at a wide range of endeavours. Between being a mountaineer, an occultist, a chess enthusiast, and a poet, he also turned his hand to prose fiction from time to time. His novels Diary of a Drug Fiend and Moonchild get most of the infamy, but he also produced a good chunk of short fiction in his time.

David Tibet, though he was deep into Crowley when he started the Current 93 industrial music project that he is most famous for and has retained a long-standing appreciation of the man, does not seem to be a dogmatic Thelemite these days; however, he is on at least good enough terms with William Breeze, AKA Hymenaeus Beta – the current head of the “Caliphate” faction of the Ordo Templi Orientis (Crowley’s most famous magical order) – to have featured Breeze on a few Current 93 recordings and to have been appointed to the International OTO Cabinet. In this latter capacity, he’s a “non-initiate” advisor to the OTO – essentially acting as someone that the leadership can turn to for advice on his particular areas of expertise.

Among Tibet’s eclectic range of other contacts is Mark Valentine, who has edited anthologies for Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural line. Wordsworth Editions, for those of you not in the UK, are known primarily as publishers of out-of-copyright work at a modest price; these days of course, there are absolute tons of small press outfits doing precisely this on Amazon, crapping out books on CreateSpace that are by and large horribly presented and feel nasty and cheap. Wordsworth are better than that: by and large the books they put out are nicely laid-out and properly edited, and by putting these out at a decent price they make a good selection of old literature easily available in hard copy for readers who might be on a tight budget, or might understandably object to paying a premium for a book which is nothing more than a reprint of something nabbed from the public domain.

The Tibet-Valentine connection makes sense when you think about it, given that both of them have made something of a career of researching into classic ghost and horror stories. (For an example of Tibet’s contributions in this vein, see my Stenbock article.) Tibet suggested to Valentine that a collection of Crowley’s short stories might be a nice addition to the Wordsworth Mystery & the Supernatural portfolio, and helped put Wordsworth in touch with William Breeze. Since the OTO believes it has a duty to make Crowley’s work available, Breeze was amenable to the idea, and though the copyright on the material had not yet run out (in the UK the copyright to material published by Crowley in his lifetime expired in 2017; posthumously-published material may still be in copyright depending on when it was first released), Breeze agreed to accept only a token royalty on the OTO’s behalf so that Wordsworth’s standard pricing could apply.

In the end two collections were produced. 2012’s The Simon Iff Stories and Other Works brought together two sets of stories that Crowley wrote as a series – Golden Twigs, a clutch of stories inspired by The Golden Bough, and the titular stories of the psychic detective Simon Iff, who would also appear as the protagonist of the novel Moonchild. Preceding it in 2010 is the book I’m going to review here: The Drug & Other Stories, collecting various standalone short stories Crowley wrote in a span of time from 1902 to 1922.

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GOGathon: Curses! Grimly, Market Forces Throttled a Genre – But It Escaped, Dig It?

In the first article in my LucasArts retrospective I’ve covered the early SCUMM engine-powered adventure games of LucasArts, prior to The Secret of Monkey Island; in the second, I covered the incredible run of adventures they put out from the first Monkey Island to Sam and Max Hit the Road. Over the time period covered from those articles, from 1987 to 1993, LucasArts put out at least one adventure game per year, occasionally two. It was a fine time to be an adventure fan.

For the last decade during which adventure game development took place at LucasArts, from 1994 to the cancellation of Sam and Max: Freelance Police in 2004, the release schedule would be much more sporadic – in fact, they’d cancel at least as many adventure game projects as actually came to fruition. In 1994 no adventures made it out.

Part of this was down to the canning of not one but two attempts to make sequels to Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis which had been under development in 1994-1995; it had become apparent that the European market, including Germany, was a major driver of sales for LucasArts adventures, to the point where that market was essentially the reason adventures were being greenlit in the first place. This makes it awkward to base adventures around a franchise where the bad guys prominently wear swastikas because they are actual Nazis.

However, the gap was not just down to this. Two projects which released in 1995 were the product of unusually long development cycles. One of these was a technologically ambitious affair whose long development cycle was inevitable in light of what they were trying to achieve; the other was a game that had spent over half a decade in various stages of development hell…

Full Throttle

Ben Throttle is the leader of the Polecats – an outlaw motorcycle gang cruising around a dilapidated American West in the not-too-distant future. The world’s moved on from folk like the Polecats; the regions of America they haunt seem to be rather tumbledown places, a post-apocalyptic world arising not from a flashy apocalypse of warfare or disaster but a slow slide into total neglect. The interests of megacorporations lie elsewhere, and even their motorcycles are relics of a bygone age – most vehicles now are based on antigravity hover technology.

One company, however, keeps the traditional American two-wheeled motorcycle alive – Corley Motors. Its founder, Malcolm Corley, is an old biker himself and is more than able to rub shoulders with his customer base, despite the business suit. His vice president, Adrian Ripburger, is a very different prospect – and has a vision for the company’s future that doesn’t include Corley or traditional bikes.

The Polecats are drawn into this plan when they are cajoled – through a bit of subterfuge that includes getting Ben out of the way – into acting as Corley’s outriders as he heads to the shareholders meeting. Ripburger exploits the opportunity to kill Corley and blame the Polecats for it – but Ben witnesses the crime, and is tasked with finding Corley’s true heir with the old man’s dying breath. It’ll take all of Ben’s brains and brawn – and all the horsepower his bike can give him – to get out of this scrape.

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The Warhammer Crime Case Files

After Chris Wraight kicked off the Warhammer Crime book line with BloodlinesNo Good Men comes along to give us a cross-section of looks at the crime genre-oriented fiction line’s setting, the hive-city of Varangantua in the Warhammer 40,000 setting. No Good Men is a title which invites the question “What about the women?”; they are here, and they are in significant supporting roles, but as we’re going to see they don’t exactly get much of an opportunity to take the lead role in a story.

Aberrant by Chris Wraight is another Agusto Zidarov story; set before Bloodlines (since his daughter has only just headed off to the schola here), it finds Zidarov asked by the Ecclesiarchy to track down some suspected mutants. Of all the three things the Imperium hates most – mutants, unsanctioned psykers, and xenos – mutants are the ones which are best-known in Varangantua; psykers are very rare, and the world is far enough away from most conflict zones that its inhabits question whether xenos even exist, but mutation appears everywhere in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and Imperial propaganda has primed Zidarov – and more or less everyone he speaks to in this story – to fear and despise the mutants.

This time around, the mutants Zidarov is tracking down – who are being used as slave labour – all have rather similar characteristics. It is remotely possible that they are Eldar of some variety (perhaps tricked into slavery by a Rogue Trader), though it feels more likely that they are a stable divergent strain of humanity like ogryns, squats, ratlings and other sanctioned abhumans – the sheer numbers of slaves, for one thing, suggests that we’re talking about more than a few renegade lone Eldar picked up here and there. Either way, the consistency of their features means that their mutations are not a sign of the favour of the Chaos Gods, making their persecution even less justifiable from an out-of-universe perspective. Heck, even Chaos mutations don’t necessarily mean someone is collaborating with Chaos – but in the setting the Imperium conflates correlation with causation.

(I guess they could be Genestealers – they have a unit called “Aberrants”, after all – in which case Zidarov has doomed his world through this call. I tend to think not. The consistency of the mutant features would not show up in a mass of Genestealers unless you happened to get a crop all from the same generation, and even then there’s significant variation within generations – the Aberrant units among Genestealers certainly would look far more monstrous than these mutants. On balance, I suspect Black Library would have opted against having the Warhammer Crime setting implicitly doomed by a Tyranid invasion as a result of decisions made in one of the first stories; if nothing else, Tyranid invasions are poor backdrops for the sort of crime story the line is meant to be about.)

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Warhammer Crime’s First Case

After Warhammer Horror demonstrated that there was an appetite for a line of Black Library books focusing on the spookier side of the various Warhammer settings, and the Warhammer Adventures lines demonstrated the same for kids’ books based around Age of Sigmar or Warhammer 40,000Warhammer Crime represents the Black Library’s latest foray into framing their tie-in fiction around a specific subgenre.

Whilst the Warhammer Horror line has made some gestures towards having particular locations mentioned frequently in their material so as to ground the stories in particular corners of the Age of Sigmar or Warhammer 40,000 universes, Warhammer Crime goes further. All the stories in the line are set in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, and specifically in a specific city on a specific world invented for the purpose of the series – the hive-city of Varangantua.

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GOGathon: Sierra’s 1993 Stockpile

The story so far: Sierra had pioneered a new age of graphic adventure games where the graphics were a major aspect of the game, rather than a nice embellishment on a text adventure, in the form of the King’s Quest games. The AGI engine developed for that series also kicked off other marquee series for the company – Space QuestPolice Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry – and then the object-oriented SCI engine formed the underpinning of a clutch of more technically advanced sequels. Sierra were riding high by the end of the 1980s, made the leap to VGA graphics and a purely point-and-click interface in 1990, suffered growing pains in 1991 and had a 1992 which, whilst inconsistent, at least gave us the best King’s Quest yet.

That King’s Quest was co-designed by a certain Jane Jensen, who having served her apprenticeship under Roberta Williams finally got the chance to do the gothy Anne Rice-ish modern-day occult horror series she’d wanted to do. If Sierra had done nothing else in 1993, the first Gabriel Knight game would still stand as a landmark moment in graphical adventure development, but as it turns out, that wasn’t all they accomplished this year. In fact, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers came out at the end of a year which was very, very busy for Sierra in terms of adventure games coming out under their aegis…

Space Quest V: The Next Mutation

After Space Quest IV, Roger Wilco has decided to better himself by signing up to Starfleet Starcon Academy, with dreams of becoming a fearless starship captain for the Federation Star Confederacy (uh, bad choice of name, guys). He’s miserably badly suited to the job, of course – but a computer glitch reminiscent of the one from the start of Brazil scrambles the test results, inadvertently giving him a perfect score.

Starcon can’t justify not giving Roger his own command, but super-slick space hero Captain Quirk has taken against Wilco, and pulls strings to ensure Roger ends up captain of the most unimportant, unglamorous, irrelevant ships in the fleet: the garbage scow Eureka. In the process of interstellar rubbish collection, Roger and his crew uncover a sinister plot – someone is distributing dangerous chemicals which cause people to transform into aggressive mutants. Who is behind this conspiracy, and could it have some connection to the dodgy-sounding communications your comms officer Flo intercepted on the Starcon standard channels? Under your leadership, it’s time for the Eureka crew to take out the trash and clean up the galaxy!

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In case anyone’s RSS or other notifications brought them here: I accidentally published my review of Sierra’s 1993 crop of adventures early. It’s gone back to draft form because it’s not ready yet (there’s two games I need to play before I can finish it).

If you were lucky enough to see it, congrats, you got a sneak preview about my feelings on Space Quest VLeisure Suit Larry 5, and Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist.

B-Grade Schwarzeneggers of the 1980s

It’s interesting how if you want to do a parody version of a typical 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie in something (like The Simpsons does with Ranier Wolfcastle’s McBain movies), you make it a fairly lowbrow straight-ahead 1980s action movie – no offbeat counterfactual genre stuff like horror/SF/fantasy movies might include, nothing fancy, just a badass cop or special forces guy blowing away bad guys and delivering quips.

The thing is, Schwarzenegger’s filmography doesn’t actually reflect that. The 1980s movies which made his reputation for the most part consisted of fantasy schlock (Conan the Barbarian and its sequels), unexpectedly thoughtful science fiction (The TerminatorPredatorThe Running Man), and the oddity which was Twins (a comedy playing off his image). This pattern largely persisted into the early 1990s, where a strand of movies like Kindergarten CopLast Action Hero, and True Lies emerged playing off his reputation as this archetypal hero for straight-ahead pure-action movies when, in fact, he’d hardly done anything in that vein.

The major exceptions to this are CommandoRaw Deal, and mmmmmaybe Red Heat, though that’s enough of a comedy that I’d consider it borderline. It’s certainly strange that Schwarzenegger’s cinematic reputation should be based essentially on two or three movies that rank among his less successful and of the decade. Let’s take a look at them and see how they come across these days.


Colonel John Matrix (Arnie) is a retired special forces commando who lives in a happy little mountain cabin with his daughter Jenny (Alyssa Milano). Their domestic peace is shattered when Matrix’s former boss descends on them in an Army helicopter to bring bad news and a couple of bodyguards for the family. You see, it turns out that someone has been killing off former members of John’s unit, and the assumption is that their civilian cover identities have been blown and John is next on the list.

Literally as soon as the Army brass have departed in the chopper it all goes to shit; within minutes the soldiers left behind to guard the house are dead, Jenny’s been kidnapped, and Matrix is in the hands of the mercenaries – led by Bennett (Vernon Wells), a former member of Matrix’s unit that Matrix had kicked out for getting a bit too war crimesy with their operations. Bennett and his team are working for Arius (Dan Hedaya), the former dictator of the South American nation of Val Verde who Matrix and crew ousted in a US-backed coup. Arius wants Matrix to use his status as a hero of Val Verde to assassinate the new president, with the intent of using the killing as the opening strike in a counter-revolution.

Naturally, Matrix isn’t having it; a few death-defying stunts later, and he’s on the loose, with only 11 hours to go until the plane he’s discovered. When coup conspirator Sully (David Patrick Kelly of Twin Peaks fame) makes the mistake of trying his pickup artist bullshit on flight attendant Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong), Matrix spots an opportunity to start unravelling the plot, and after some initial reluctance Cindy finds herself swept up in Matrix’s adventure.

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GOGathon: Sierra’s 1992

By 1992, Sierra’s graphical adventure credentials were well-established. After pioneering the form, first with the early King’s Quest games and then a range of other flagship series, they introduced their SCI scripting engine which would underpin most of their remaining adventures. The end of the 1980s found them producing more than ever, and then 1990 saw them take the plunge into full-fledged point-and-click, setting aside their old text parser after it had long since ceased to be cutting edge. 1991 found various hands at Sierra trying their hand in the brave new frontier of point-and-click, with mixed results.

1992’s crop of adventures enjoyed the benefits of an upgrade to the SCI system, SCI1.1. SCI0 had been the EGA graphics-based parser-powered adventures of the late 1980s, following the earlier AGI-powered adventures, and SCI1 had introduced VGA graphics and the new point-and-click system. SCI1.1 did a lot of backend housecleaning, which included setting up a brand new automated system for downscaling graphics to EGA, avoiding the need to do different versions of each game for different graphical standards. It also included better support for scaling spites, as well as support for including videos in games, like the prerendered 3D video that acts as the opening scene for King’s Quest VI.

This was ultimately an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary shift, and Sierra’s output for 1992 perhaps reflects this – it’s all sequels of established series rather than anything particularly bold. Let’s take in the year’s crop…

The Dagger of Amon Ra

Laura Bow’s second outing (following The Colonel’s Bequest) saw Sierra break with tradition somewhat: whereas the vast majority of Sierra’s ongoing series had been associated with a core designer or a pair of designers, much as a series of novels is sold in part on the reputation of its author, here Roberta Williams stepped back (credited solely as a “creative consultant”).

The initial plan, as recounted in a rather informative retrospective interview with the creative leads from the Campo Santo Quarterly, was for Josh Mandel (the voice of King Graham in King’s Quest V!) to write and design the game – a prospect he found daunting given the bar set by The Colonel’s Bequest and the fact that he had more of a knack for comedy writing than designing mysteries. Bruce Balfour had been lured to Sierra, having previously worked at Interplay contributing to various adventure games and RPGs – including Wasteland, the forerunner to the Fallout series – but the plan was that he’s write for a comedy game called Little Larry’s Guide To Life, a reinvention of the Leisure Suit Larry series aimed at a teenage audience with the intention of giving them advice about difficult topics like divorce, school, relationships and whatnot. (I guess the vision was some sort of edutainment take on Porky’s.)

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Butterflies and Monsters – Two Unusual Italian Horror Movies

Italian genre cinema is largely known for particular genre features – spaghetti Westerns, the proto-slashers of the giallo genre, microgenres like the fads for zombie movies or cannibal movies, and rip-offs of more successful Hollywood releases – and I think it’s easy to assume it’s all rather samey. In the interests of this, today’s backlog clearance job is me putting a spotlight of a couple of more unusual Italian horror/crime pieces.

Caltiki – The Immortal Monster

It’s the 1950s, and a team of scientists are investigating the ruins of Tikal – an ancient Mayan city which was abandoned for reasons not known to modern historians. Folklore hints at the rise of a goddess known as Caltiki, a malevolent deity; a subterranean temple, its entrance exposed after a recent volcanic eruption, is discovered by the party and seems to be dedicated to her. Within it is a deep pool – they infer that it’s a sacrificial pool, into which human victims would be tossed to drown bedecked in jewellery as gifts to the goddess, and a quick scuba jaunt into the pool seems to prove this hypothesis. The entity in the lake is no anthropomorphic goddess, though – it’s an ancient, blob-like creature, some 20 million years old, awoken by the fumbling explorers…

This kicks off an old-timey SF-horror adventure that’s massively influenced by Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness – the ancient blob creature is extremely shoggoth-like – as well as the likes of Clark Ashton Smith. (A decidedly shoggoth-like spawn of Tsathoggua is found guarding a temple in one of Smith’s stories of long-ago Hyperborea, The Tale of Satampra Zeiros.) There’s also a certain Quatermass angle to proceedings – the centrality of the scientific enigma to the story, for instance, and the increasing audacity of its revelations. (Just wait until you get to the comet angle…)

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