A Lupine Calendar

Things are rarely simple with Gene Wolfe. Take his Castle of Days – there’s not one castle, there’s two of them. The first castle is a physical book – a compilation which reprints his second major short story collection (Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days), a rare pamphlet he put out about his process of writing The Book of the New Sun (The Castle of the Otter), and the second Castle of Days, this being a brace of essays on other topics.

What you get here, then, is a triptych, comprising one short story collection and two essay collections, each of which is a shade over half the length of the short story collection. It’s the sort of edifice you’d want a floorplan to navigate – so here goes…

Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days

As the title implies, this has a calendrical theme, with each short story being associated with a particular holiday, anniversary, or other annual occasion. There’s even a bit of microfiction in the introduction – a cautionary tale about the danger of misusing libraries – to mark “Date Due”, and to reward people who don’t skip author’s introductions.

Our first full story marks Lincoln’s birthday with How the Whip Came Back, a scathing bit of social commentary about a near-future UN conference which plans to reinstate slavery – specifically in the form of penal reform, so that convicted prisoners could be “leased” to paying members of the public. Originally published in 1970, this would have hailed from when Wolfe regarded himself as more of a doctrinaire libertarian, so there’s some cracks about how Church and charity have withered away because people have been happy for the state to take on those roles instead, though equally Wolfe doesn’t take the usual libertarian route of arguing that charity can step into the compassion gap – indeed, the main character is a woman who works for the charity sector for social clout, not because she sincerely cares about the causes in question.

The story can seem incongruous, because the US prison-industrial complex is an infamous Constitutional loophole which keeps a form of modern-day slavery going anyway – but on reading up on this I found out that prison labour in the US expanded massively after 1979 legislation created lots more opportunities to use it, and in particular removed restrictions on prison-manufactured products crossing state lines. To that extent, it’s hard to disagree with the central pillar of Wolfe’s position here – something not unlike what he was afraid of has in fact come to pass.

That said, I am not sure that the background details like expansive government welfare programs or the decline of religion necessarily point to the root cause of this evil; private corporations, a force notably absent in the story, seem to be the main beneficiaries of the US prison-industrial complex, and many hard-right US leaders have been able to resolve the contradiction between avowed Christian values and support for harsh treatment of convicts.

The depiction of a shabby, declining Catholic Church – where the last nun recently died, the priests have given up all their traditional trappings, and the Pope knocks about in a cheap suit smoking cheap cigarettes while trying to wake up people’s consciences – is perhaps something Wolfe legitimately worried about at the time (he strikes me as someone who’d have felt it was a shame that Vatican II gave up on the Latin Mass because Latin is pretty), but also incongruous given the Church’s apparent ability to keep the lights on and the bills paid despite an entire half-century of fiscal corruption and mass rape elapsing between the story’s composition and now. If that can’t crash the popularity of Rome, what can?

Continue reading “A Lupine Calendar”

A Medieval Era of Flesh and Birds

By the end of his career, Rutger Hauer would be fairly well pigeonholed as a guy you call when you want to do something a bit cyberpunk. Everyone remembered his turn in Blade Runner, of course, and though he made a game attempt to get away from that niche, by the mid-1990s his career was slowing down and he realised he could make a steady paycheque in appearing in B-grade material like Split Second and Omega Doom.

In the midst of his mid-career attempt to pull away from modern-day thrillers and near-future dystopias as his main source of work, he did take on a broader range of projects, and one of the oddest years on his CV was 1985 – in which he appeared in not one but two medieval adventures, playing characters who neither toted guns nor employed cybernetics. Tonally speaking, the two projects could not be more different – for whilst one was a family-friendly fable, the other was Paul Verhoeven going full Verhoeven on the Middle Ages…


Phillipe Gaston (Matthew Broderick) is a wise-cracking, roguishly charming thief in medieval Italy – known as the Mouse. After escaping from the dungeons of the Bishop of Aquila (John Wood), the Mouse ends up falling in with Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer), formerly the captain of the Bishop’s guards, but now just as much of a wanted man as the Mouse is, and Isabeau of Anjou (Michelle Pfieffer), a nobleman’s daughter and Etienne’s lover.

From his perspective, though, it may be better to say that he alternatingly falls in with them, at least at first – for he seems to never meet the two together. By day he travels with Etienne, who is accompanied by a fine hawk worthy of any falconer’s admiration; by night he travels with Isabeau, who is protected by a fierce wolf. Then he discovers the astonishing truth: Etienne is the wolf, and Isabeau is the hawk, for the Bishop is a dabbler in magic, who placed upon Etienne and Isabeau a curse that only one of them would have human form at any particular time, with Etienne transforming to a wolf just as Isabeau transforms to a hawk at sunset and the reverse process occurring at Dawn.

It’s an astonishing turn of events, preventing the two lovers from consummating their passion unless they resort to bestiality – and it’s clear that Etienne, Isabeau, and the Mouse will never know peace as long as they do not settle the score with the Bishop. But even if they do, can they force him to lift the curse, or is Etienne doomed to the life of a werewolf – and Isabeau that of a Ladyhawke?

1985’s Ladyhawke is a big, fun fantasy adventure movie with just enough historical flavour (both in the setting and its folkloric roots) to save it from being utterly generic. Compared to much 1980s fantasy fare, it’s held up remarkably well; the aspect which has dated the worst is probably the soundtrack by Andrew Powell, keyboardist and orchestral arranger with the Alan Parsons Project. It’s not bad as such – but it’s, shall we say, a little variable.

The orchestral sections are fine, but the keyboard dominated parts are very hit-and miss – at their best, they offer the same sort of 1980s fantasy neo-prog tone of, say, the soundtracks to Hawk the Slayer or Robin of Sherwood, and broadly suit the onscreen action; at their worst, they sound more appropriate to the weekend sports roundup than a romantic fantasy movie. A bigger issue arises with the film’s tendency to overuse the most incongruous musical cues, aggravating this aspect.

The other thing about the movie which is a bit Marmite-ish is Broderick himself. The film perhaps lands best if you keep in mind that it’s essentially being told from the point of view of the comedy sidekick – the Mouse – rather than either of the actual protagonists. The heart of the story is really the romance between Etienne and Isabeau, the agony they feel at their magically-enforced separation, and their quest to overcome the Bishop and undo the curse that keeps them apart, but by keeping the focus of the action on the Mouse rather than either of the main characters, director Richard Donner keeps us slightly away from the centre of gravity of the action. Some may find this frustrating and needlessly obfuscatory, but I think it’s a fun storytelling motif.

Perhaps a bigger issue is the pacing – incident follows incident and the film occasionally comes across like it’s jumping over some of the connecting tissue which would make them flow better. There’s also some issues with the sets and locations – some of them are very nicely executed, but others are less convincing, like the “village” which seems to be situated square in the middle of land which has never been used for any agricultural purpose whatsoever.

Despite all these stumbling blocks, though, I have a lot of affection for Ladyhawke. The central story, despite being obscured for about half the running time, is grand; Broderick’s far from the most irritating comic sidekick in a fantasy movie out there, and actually does a good job in some respects of getting across the sense of being this kid who’s in over his head, and Hauer and Pfieffer are great as our protagonists. The supporting cast is great too – John Wood as the villainous Bishop is a lot of fun, and there’s a clutch of great supporting roles too. Alfred Molina has a fun turn as Cezar, a wolf trapper sent by the Bishop to eliminate Etienne, whilst the monk Imperius offers a fantastic role for for Leo McKern, perhaps the best of the Number Twos from The Prisoner. There might not be that much depth to it in the end, but it’s a delightfully pretty film with a very cute romance angle for all that.

Flesh + Blood

In late medieval Italy, the lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) hires a company of mercenaries captained by Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) to regain control of a city that has risen against him. They fight bravely and grimly amidst the roar of the canon and clash of the halberds – but when Arnolfini balks at paying the mercenaries and wants them out of the city, he persuades Hawkwood to betray his own men. Embittered by the betrayal, some of the survivors form a band of renegades, led by the swaggering, popular warrior Martin (Rutger Hauer) and advised by a blustering priest they ironically dub “Cardinal” (Ronald Lacey), who is prone to visions and wild claims.

Turning to banditry, the group is able to exploit the chaos of the era to exact some measure of revenge; they abduct Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is betrothed to Arnolfini’s son Steven (Tom Burlison), at which point Martin rapes her and the group strongarm her into helping them seize control of a castle which they intend to use as the fulcrum of their depredations of the land. Steven, however, is a learned young man who might turn his superior scientific knowledge against the bandits – and plague is burning its way through the land, throwing a wildcard factor into the situation.

Amidst all this, Agnes feels a contradictory pull – both duty and her sense of morality say she should be true to Steven, but her sexual desire cries out for Martin. The three end up locked in a terrifying conflict of Flesh + Blood

This was Paul Verhoeven’s Hollywood debut, produced at a time when the controversy stirred by his earlier works had made it hard for him to get Dutch public funding for his work. Back home in the Netherlands, Verhoeven and Hauer had worked together on the 1969 TV series Floris, and Flesh + Blood was based in part on unused ideas from that show. Hauer, apparently, was expecting that the project would essentially be a big-budget take on Floris, giving him an opportunity to play another heroic role.

Verhoeven, on the other hand, wanted to make an ostentatiously grimdark take on the Middle Ages, having become tired of the glut of sunnier medieval-themed fantasy movies that had been coming out in the 1980s, and so deliberately made the film as morally and aesthetically grimy as possible. There’s nobody you can get behind here, everyone is terrible to each other, and they are usually terrible whilst coated in mud; thanks to the likes of Game of Thrones this sort of grimy, colourless, drab medieval aesthetic has now, of course, become the norm, but it was a break from the ordinary here.

That’s all very well in theory, but it’s not what Hauer wanted. Though Martin is meant to be cool and dangerous and attractive, there’s no danger of him coming across as anything other than villainous. He rapes Agnes, for one thing; worse yet, this is a gambit to stop his ill-disciplined men from gang-raping her, which means that the kindest and most charitable thing he does through the entire movie is an act of violent sexual assault. Whilst Verhoeven succeeds at his aim of depicting a world where there’s no heroes, he absolutely creates a world where there are villains, and Martin fits that smartly.

Hauer was not the only unhappy party. Verhoeven’s original plan for the movie was that it would all be about a power struggle between Martin and Hawkwood; one can sort of squint and see the rough outline of what this story might have gone like in the final product. You’d have still started with Hawkwood siding with his employer against his own mercenaries, you’d have still had Martin gathering together survivors in a bandit group, you’d have probably had the castle that the bandits seize control of be specifically a castle belonging to Arnolfini, so as to force Hawkwood to ride out and try and settle the situation so that Martin and his brutal band can have a chance to get bloody revenge against him.

The studio, however, demanded changes, and insisted that there needed to be a significant romance plot. This inspired the addition of Agnes in the first place, and shifted the emphasis of the story to the love triangle between her, Martin, and Steven, rather than the feud between Martin and Hawkwood. At the hands of any other director, this would significantly impact the direction of the piece and compromise the core artistic vision; with Verhoeven behind the camera, this development played into his most controversial instincts, encouraging him to be enormously explicit with much of what was going on on-camera.

This is Verhoeven at his most unabashedly horny, creating a vision of uncomfortably violent sexuality playing out in a historical setting with starkly delineated gender roles; at its best, Agnes’ attraction to Martin could be seen as being in the same vein as countless other bodice-rippers of years gone by, but unlike in the type of romance fiction where the borders of consent are skirted, there is absolutely no sentimentality in Verhoeven’s direction here. People aren’t lovey-dovey or sweet on each other – they’re passionately horny, and unabashed about it. At its worst, however, the film seems to relish in depicting sexual violence and Stockholm Syndrome as being edgy and cool and punk rock.

This would work much better if Steven weren’t involved. Out of all the major characters in the film, he’s the one who seems the most incongruous. Though Agnes was imposed on the production by the studio, Verhoeven at least seems to have had an idea of what to do with such a character – even if that sometimes feels a bit grim and lascivious. I don’t get the impression that there was such a clear vision for Steven. He’s got these inventions and this scientific understanding, but such a background and skillset feels like it’d make him more appropriate as a protagonist of a more light-hearted story, a yarn about a proto-Da Vinci trying to make his way in a medieval world which doesn’t yet appreciate the value of his philosophy.

Moreover, it’s established early on that he’s actually quite bad at this very schtick. He’s introduced at the siege of the town rolling up with a new weapon – a barrel of gunpowder with a long fuse, set up to be wheeled up to the walls like a wheelbarrow and then detonated. The weapon fails because he hands it off to someone else, who has a good go of running it up to the walls, but then Steven lights the fuse when the chap is still a fair bit away from the walls, and the fuse burns too fast and the bomb explodes early. This was a totally pointless action on Steven’s part – why not wait until the guy had got to the walls? – and suggests he understood his weapon so poorly that he didn’t even have a good idea of how quickly the fuse would burn. It just makes him look faintly rubbish.

Things are made worse by Verhoeven’s insistence on making everyone an at least somewhat ambiguous character. If the film got behind Steven as its clear hero and protagonist, that would be one thing – but as it stands it can’t afford to do that without totally undermining what it’s going for. At the same time, Steven doesn’t really have much opportunity to do things which are genuinely horrid, nor much in the way of motivation to do so; the worst he does is contaminate the well water in the castle with plague, but he does this right in front of Agnes and lets it be her call as to whether she warns the bandits or not, and he’s in a desperate edge-of-survival situation when it happens at that.

This means that in order to make him an ambiguous figure, Verhoeven has to do a character assassination on him; since he’s not going to look too shabby to the audience solely on the strength of his deeds, he needs to look rubbish on the basis of his personality. He’s just a kind of alternatingly boring and annoying dude, the sort of guy where yes, maybe it probably is more sensible to hang around with him than a murderous rapist, but good Lord would it be soul-destroying to do so.

The last problem with the film, to my mind, is the running time. It’s over two hours long, and honestly by the time the mercenaries take the castle there just ain’t that much satisfying plot left. The remainder of the movie is an exercise in keeping the wheels spinning long enough until the status quo finally collapses at the end.

On the whole, Flesh + Blood is a frequently compelling vision – Verhoeven keeps sneaking in little visuals here and there like Martin with a burning wheel behind him looking like a halo which adds a little something to the look of the thing – but it’s striking visuals and a grand Basil Poledouris soundtrack disguising what is ultimately, once you get past the initial shock value, a lack of substance.

GOGathon: Call of the Longest Journey to Pripyat, the Land of Lore

Time for another rundown of stuff I’ve been tinkering with from the depths of GOG. This time around, it’s three games which I really wanted to like, and early on in my playthrough I did like, but which ended up losing me partway through.

Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos

Back when I reviewed the Eye of the Beholder trilogy I largely came to the same conclusion as the broader consensus: the best two games in that dungeon-crawling CRPG sequence were the first two, developed by Westwood Studios for publication by SSI, with the second game adding a welcome level of additional story over the fairly bare-bones original, and with both of those games offering a fun take on the Dungeon Master formula (Dungeon Master itself being a welcome improvement on the format of Wizardry, a series which despite being undeniably pioneering when it first came out is nonetheless rather clunky and unwelcoming to play today), whilst the third game, developed in-house by SSI themselves, was kind of a botch.

Part of the reason for Westwood not taking on the third game in the series was that they were bought out by Virgin, who may not have wanted them making content for other publishers when they could be making material for Virgin to distribute. Among their first projects under Virgin was the Lands of Lore series, which are a sort of spiritual successor to the Eye of the Beholder trilogy liberated of the need to use the trappings of the Forgotten Realms and an approximation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons system.

The first game in the series, The Throne of Chaos, was unleashed in 1993. The evil witch Scotia has uncovered the Nether Mask, a magical ring which confers incredible powers of mimicry on its wearer. King Richard (voiced in the CD-ROM version by none other than Patrick Stewart), who rules the realm from Gladstone Keep, has dispatched you to recover the Ruby of Truth, a relic famed for its capacity to cut through all forms of deceit. Little do you or he know that Scotia’s forces are already one step ahead of you.

Continue reading “GOGathon: Call of the Longest Journey to Pripyat, the Land of Lore”

The Murphiad, Part 5: 1991-1999

Time to go back to the coalface and keep working through Magic, Myth & Mutilation, Powerhouse/Indicator’s expansive blu-ray boxed set of the complete (extant) works of Michael J. Murphy. To recap where we’ve been so far – we’ve taken in Murphy’s often-fragmentary early work, saw him break his way into home video distribution, watched him navigate difficulties with distributors, and seen him enter perhaps his creative peak. Is that going to continue, or will we witness it derailing at some point during the 1990s? Let’s pick up our trusty 16mm cameras and find out…

Second Sight

Raymond Heller (Patrick Olliver) is a dreamweaver and visionary in the vein of Garth Marenghi – in other words, a horror writer for the trashy paperback market. He’s been successful enough to set himself up in a plush house in the countryside with his significantly younger new wife Victoria (Amy Raasch). His life isn’t perfect, but its tensions are minor in the grand scheme of things – an accidental moment where Victoria got trapped in the cupboard under the stairs and had a claustrophobia-induced panic attack, a tense argument with his editor Madeline (Caroline MacDowell) over the movie rights to his books, a bit of writer’s block with his next project, no big deal.

Well, maybe, maybe not. Victoria is certainly quite flirty with Nick (James Reynard), the manor house’s groundskeeper, whilst also being jealous of Nick’s close friendship with Tanith (Jude Flanagan), a local occultist and medium who he befriended when researching some of his more supernaturally-inclined novels. Then Sean (David Charles) arrives. Introducing himself to Ray as an old college pal of Victoria’s who decided to visit when he came to England on a business trip, Victoria’s marriage to a minor celebrity making it possible for Sean to track her down; in fact, he’s Victoria’s abusive ex-husband, who she came to England to get away from, a facet of her past which Victoria has never felt able to tell Ray about.

Over dinner with Victoria and Sean, Ray explains how his finances are more constrained than authors of a similar level of popularity because of his refusal to sign away those film rights – but he’d be happy for Victoria, on inheriting the rights to his literary estate, to sign them over once he’s dead in order to support herself in her widowhood, prompting a brash discussion of how the situation could in and of itself be an apt setup for a murder mystery and how one might get away with it. After dinner, Sean tries to strongarm Victoria into being his accomplice in murdering Ray; when she refuses, they get into a fight, and she ends up stabbing him to death with a sharp pair of scissors.

With a sozzled Ray dead to the world, Victoria turns to Nick to clean everything up – but their shared secret intensifies the growing intimacy between them, and soon they are having an affair which threatens to destroy everything. Have they gotten away with it? Perhaps, perhaps not – Ray, for one thing, discovers a stray bit of blood caught in the hinge of the scissors that Victoria overlooked in cleanup, and Victoria is disturbed when Tanith claims to have perceived hints of a chain of tragic events occurring in the village. Is Tanith merely picking up unconsciously on Victoria and Nick’s guilt? Or does she have the gift of… Second Sight?

Continue reading “The Murphiad, Part 5: 1991-1999”

The Murphiad, Part 4: 1988-1991

Yes, I’m still working my way through Powerhouse/Indicator’s epic blu-ray boxed set of the complete extant works of Michael J. Murphy, micro-budget multi-genre auteur director. The story so far: after spending the 1960s and 1970s honing his craft, Murphy broke into the home video market and began churning out material for it, though sharp practice on the part of distributors meant that he did not quite get the cut of the take he deserved (and the take was, admittedly, fairly modest).

Things seem to have picked up around the time he made 1987’s Death Run, however. Jeanne Griffin – an old friend of his who’d appeared in his 1960s schoolboy effort Atlantis: City of Sin and played the role of Mary in 1981’s Death In the Family – was credited as a producer on that, and on a swathe of his following films; one wonders if she came into a bit of money at some point, or had perhaps developed business connections in her day job which would help with self-publishing the material or otherwise was able to help out, because we’re about to get into a period when Murphy started to gather something approximating success. Death Run itself did not get a particularly widespread release, but Murphy’s next movie would prove to be his biggest commercial success yet… Well, for micro-budget values of “big”.


The realms of sword and sorcery are being terrorised by the forces of Avalon – the island of magic ruled over by the cruel Morgana (Debbi Stevens). Over on the mainland, the heroic Owen (Stephen Harris) seeks word of King Arthur’s fate; in the process he encounters a druid gathering, whose high priest (Jon Morgan) intends to sacrifice the fair Clotilde (Abigail Blackmore) to gain magical protection from Morgana’s terrors – and then hack the hands off the young thief Kieran (Rob Bartlett) as punishment for trying to steal precious Druidic artifacts.

Owen springs into action to save Clotilde and Kieran, and afterwards discovers that Clotilde has her own reasons for seeking Avalon – for her lover Edwin (Craig Hiller) has been spirited away there. At first, Kieran has no intention of following them to such an ill-rumoured place – but then they encounter Merlin (Patrick Olliver), who regales them with stories of the fabulous treasures to be found on Avalon, at which point Kieran changes his tune.

It is no easy feat to get to Avalon – but Merlin’s magic allows him, Owen, Clotilde, and Kieran to all swim to the enchanted isle. There Merlin parts ways with them on another errand with the Lady of the Lake (Caroline MacDowell), though promising that they shall have his aid when it counts. So the trio must face enchanted forests, cursed creatures, zombie soldiers, and all the other perils and wonders of… Avalon.

Continue reading “The Murphiad, Part 4: 1988-1991”

The Murphiad, Part 3: 1983-1987

The story so far: after serving a long apprenticeship, Michael J. Murphy (and his found family of actors and crew) would find himself on the cusp of success, albeit success of a fairly modest sort. His Invitation To Hell – released first as a double bill with The Last Night, then standalone – gained some traction in the home video market, and suddenly people were paying attention. Death In the Family also got a limited release. Suddenly, it seemed like his work might actually commercially viable. Would Murphy succumb to the demands of the market and start churning out more conventional productions, with more professional production values, in response to this?

Hell, no.

Quälen (AKA The Hereafter)

Neville Harmer (Stephen Longhurst) and his partner Vicky (Caroline MacDowell) find their romance obstructed by Neville’s cantankerous, demanding father Alfred (Al Greer). Being disabled, Alfred requires Neville to act as his carer – even though a wealthy chap like Alfred could surely afford a professional caregiver. It’s all made more aggravating by the fact that Alfred refuses to leave his sprawling estate – indeed, for 30 years he’s not trod outside its bounds.

One day, after Alfred and Neville have an argument, the brakes on Alfred’s wheelchair fail, causing him to fall into the lake on the estate and drown. Everyone assumes it was an accident – indeed, all the eyewitnesses saw that Neville was well away from the chair when the brake failed, so there can be no question of him causing it. When the will is read, it turns out that Alfred left the whole estate to Neville, with the proviso that he can’t sell it and must live there for at least 11 months out of the year.

The Harwell estates is a sprawling country mansion complete with its own ghostly stories and legends, with surrounding lands and outbuildings, including a sawmill which brings a healthy income and some resident workers, like Patrick (Colin Efford) and Dorothy (Wendy Young), the Harmer company secretary who lives on a cottage on the estate. Having more people to hand is little help, however, when Neville starts to think the ghosts of the estate are stirring. Who knows, perhaps Vicky’s friend Sylvia (Yvette Gunter), a medium, might be able to sort everything out with a séance…

Continue reading “The Murphiad, Part 3: 1983-1987”

The Murphiad, Part 1: 1970-1979

One of the most obscure directors working in British genre cinema was the Portsmouth-based veteran Michael J. Murphy. A film buff from a young age, his first productions essentially consisted of him and some of his school buddies having a bit of a lark, but even then involved more elaborate productions than you might expect of teenagers in the mid-1960s playing about with a camera. From the beginning, he seems to have had a knack for seeking out and recruiting like-minded collaborators; many of his cast and crew would come back to help out with multiple projects over the years, and the impression one gets in people’s recollections is of a genuinely beloved figure who created this found family around himself based on a shared love of the movies and a willingness to commit to the bit.

Towards the end of his school days, his headmaster would make an effort to get him a placement with Elstree Studios so he could pursue a career in film, but Murphy would spend his subsequent years well outside of the mainstream British film industry. His early works would get extremely limited local showings – essentially seen only by friends and family, and via a few venues willing to give his material a chance – but come the 1980s the home video boom would change everything. Distributors were keen for any material they could put out there, and Murphy was only too happy to oblige – yielding some of the strangest straight-to-video movies of the era.

Murphy would keep chugging along putting out movies for decades, and died shortly after the release of his 2015 film The Return of Alan Strange, and it’s a measure of the affection his film-making friends had for him that they’ve gone to significant lengths to ensure his legacy is preserved. Murlyn, the production company he ran alongside Phil Lyndon, a regular leading actor in his later productions, has gone to lengths to ensure that his movies are available – as well as making a range of his work available on Tubi, they’ve teamed up with Powerhouse and the Indicator blu-ray imprint to put out Magic, Myth & Mutilation: The Micro-Budget Cinema of Michael J. Murphy, which contains pretty much his entire canon in one box.

Perhaps the rise of YouTube and amateur filmmaking on there has made this set especially timely. Just as Murphy was ahead of his time in terms of putting out cheap genre movies before the home video market was really there to take advantage of his output, he was also arguably a forerunner of anyone who’s ever grabbed a camera and made a zero-budget story for YouTube like the Marble Hornets guys and their peers. The US had a more substantial micro-budget cinema scene back in the day – as witnessed by releases like Vinegar Syndrome’s Home Grown Horrors and Arrow’s American Horror Project volumes 1 and 2 – but Murphy was charting a somewhat lonelier course in Britain, in part because we didn’t really have the sort of grindhouse cinemas that the US had, and his work as such verges on outsider art, perhaps disqualified only from that status only because of the number of collaborators he managed to sweep along with him.

For this first article going through the box, I’m going to take in the material from the 1970s included therein – all of which has needed a certain amount of reconstruction on the part of Powerhouse. The accompanying booklet is refreshingly blunt about the frustrations of the restoration process; as it turns out, Murphy was absolutely terrible when it came to archiving his stuff, and for budget reasons would often edit the source material directly rather than making copies. When it comes to his 1960s material, basically all that exists are a few snippets here and there; the 1970s movies can be presented in versions which more or less get across the idea of the stories in question, but are not as complete as they could be, since the original 16mm stock is incomplete and bits of the soundtrack have had to be reclaimed from various sources – or are outright lost.

Some bits are taken from camcorder recordings made by Murphy in the 1980s, when he screened the films at home for the appreciation of family and friends, because these are simply the only sources for the bits in question; it says a lot both for Murphy’s knack with a camera and the skill of Powerhouse’s restorers that these bits are viable for use at all, but even so the occasional nose-dives in quality are quite evident.

From the early 1980s onwards, Murphy’s material is available in much more complete forms – because the home video boom gave him an outlet to actually release the things to more than very limited-circulation screenings, so where all else failed those old tapes could be utilised to fill any gaps. But for this leg of the journey, we are in for a rocky path indeed, and none more rocky than the very first step on our trip through the Murphy dimension…

Continue reading “The Murphiad, Part 1: 1970-1979”

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?

Continue reading “Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle, Part 1: A Magnificent Saga, Executed Perfectly”

Bite-Sized Book Thoughts (The Fall of Númenor, Back Book 3, and Masks of the Illuminati)

Sometimes I’ll read a book and have a thing or two to say about it on here, but not enough that I think it merits a full article, so here’s the first entrance in my Bite-Sized Book Thoughts – a book-themed update of the old Ferretnibbles concept from the Ferretbrain days.

This time around, I’m going to look at three pieces which are either direct sequels to stuff or further entries in their overall settings – where, as such, I don’t have loads to say about them which wouldn’t be redundant with what I said about related works in their respective series.

The Fall of Númenor (J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Brian Sibley)

This is essentially doing for the Second Age of Middle-Earth what The Children of Húrin, Beren and Lúthien, and The Fall of Gondolin did for the major legends of the First Age – bringing together as much as possible of the material Tolkien cooked up on the subject, arranging it in a sensible order, and releasing it as a “new” Tolkien book. With Christopher Tolkien having sailed to Valinor, for this volume the editorial burden is taken up by Brian Sibley, who was responsible for the 1981 BBC Radio dramatisation of The Lord of the Rings – for my money the best adaptation of the story extant.

This is an apt choice; between his hand in the radio drama and his authoring the official making-of books for Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth movies, Sibley has a wealth of experience in the problem of adapting Tolkien, which inherently involves a certain amount of editing Tolkien, which is the task he is faced with here. He wisely decides to follow the chronology in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings; the book is essentially a massively adapted version of that, with additional information from The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, The History of Middle-Earth, The Nature of Middle-Earth, and Tolkien’s letters and whatnot parachuted in to expand on the entries there.

Whereas I didn’t like The History of Middle-Earth and The Nature of Middle-Earth, because to an extent they’re as much a compilation of ideas that Tolkien toyed with and then rejected as it is a collection of ideas he added to his worldbuilding but never saw light of day in his published work, I did like Christopher Tolkien’s various expansions on the First Age legends, because they saw him doing the additional legwork of taking all that material and presenting it in a much more focused fashion. This does more or less the same trick, and is able to cover a much greater span of time than any of those volumes because the Second Age is the one that Tolkien developed the least.

As a consequence of Tolkien not really writing any stories set in that time (there’s one fairly developed story of the tempestuous marriage of a Númenorean prince and a woman who does not understand his urge for exploration), this is more backstory than it is a satisfying story in its own right. This will mostly be of interest for use as a worldbuilding reference, looking up Second Age-relevant information – say, if you’re writing fanfic, running a Middle-Earth-based RPG like The One Ring, or are trying to figure out where Amazon have deviated from canon in The Rings of Power. (Answer: everywhere.)

Back Book 3 (K.C. Green and Andrew Clark)

I covered the first two volumes of this graphic novel back when I wrote about the Kickstarter for Book 2. This volume is about as long as both the previous ones put together, but the plot here has become sufficiently un-episodic that it makes sense to burn through it all in one go. The most interesting thing I have to note here is that the production of the book wasn’t crowded through Kickstarter but TopatoGO! – the TopatoCo own-brand crowdfunding platform. This is an interesting development and might make sense for projects likely to use the TopatoCo umbrella for distribution and the like, and may also be a symptom of growing mistrust of Kickstarter due to stuff like their investment in blockchain technologies of dubious utility.

In terms of the action here, this rounds out the series, sees the final revelation of the nature of the strange world that Abigail the gunslinger and Daniel the druid live on, exposes the plans of the witches manipulating King Dang, and brings everything to a satisfying resolution. This whole arc dragged a little bit when I read it on release, because it suffered from the curse of webcomic pacing where you don’t really get much more than a few pages a week, and that’s if you’re very lucky and the artist can work very quickly and update very reliably; it works substantially better read all at once, so I’m glad to get the collection. (The whole sequence is online, but it’s nice to have insurance against it disappearing in the future.)

Masks of the Illuminati (Robert Anton Wilson)

In the days immediately prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand kicking off World War I, Sir John Babcock comes to Zürich in a state of high agitation, believing himself to be hounded across Europe by a diabolical conspiracy. Through sheer coincidence, he encounters Albert Einstein and James Joyce – two notable thinkers of their age who happen to both be in town – and regales them with his story. Is he merely highly paranoid, or could it be that he has stumbled across a vast occult conspiracy directed by none less than the wickedest man in the world, one Aleister Crowley?

Published in 1981, Robert Anton Wilson’s Masks of the Illuminati came out hot on the heels of his Schrödinger’s Cat trilogy, in which Wilson dialled the most irritating aspects of his writing up to 11 in order to make much the same points as he did in the Illuminatus! trilogy, only in a more meandering structure with more filler which has dated worse. Since the Illuminatus! trilogy has a highly meandering structure, perhaps a bit of filler, and hasn’t dated brilliantly, that’s saying a lot.

Nonetheless, I actually think Masks of the Illuminati is pretty good. Sure, Wilson’s usual writing quirks are still there, but unexpectedly, out of nowhere, he suddenly learns something resembling narrative discipline, and he ensures his use of his various recurring schticks are actually appropriate to the job at had. For instance, yet again he’s back to mimicing James Joyce at points, but this is generally pulled out for sections written from Joyce’s point of view, so the Joyce-isms are justified by the premise.

(One might argue that that’s also true in Schrödinger’s Cat, since that’s a slice-of-life book without any conventional plot which is consciously borrowing from Ulysses, famously a slice-of-life book without any conventional plot, but in that context it doesn’t stick the landing because it’s also trying to do a dozen other things in a fairly disorganised fashion.)

More broadly, the whole arc of the novel is about an initiatory experience in which Babcock’s worldview is forcibly leapfrogged from a somewhat stuffy and old-fashioned Victorian mindset into a more postmodern outlook – so Wilson’s occasional drifts into experimentalism, his comedic asides, the sections of the book written as scripts (some including cinematic-style notes on shots), the obligatory hallucinatory trip at the end (likely induced by mescaline rather than LSD, but other than that a good old-fashioned Wilson standby), and all the rest are kind of apt in that sense.

In particular, such anachronistically experimental notes end up being a neat device for nudging the reader and reminding them that, despite appearances to the contrary, this is not a straight-up horror novel in the style of Arthur Machen, Robert Chambers, or Lovecraft (not credited in the text, obviously, but an entire strand of the story is a nicely-done riff on The Whisperer In Darkness) with a plot from straight out of Dennis Wheatley; that’s merely the subjective experience of Sir John, who has a worldview which reverts to that sort of thing when under stress.

In addition, whereas Schrödinger’s Cat had Wilson attempt address a large number of subjects in a fairly disorganised way, with the result that he touches on a lot of them in a fairly oversimplified manner, Masks sees him be a bit more careful about setting the boundaries of his narrative. Sure, there’s all sorts of nods to Schrödinger’s Cat and Illuminatus! scattered through the thing, with various characters here conceivably being ancestors or alternate versions of characters from those series, and there’s implications about deeper linkages and the possibility that World War I might have been the result of Illuminati machinations, but those are sideshows, and Wilson makes sure not to get bogged down in them. His story here is the psychological liberation of Sir John Babcock, and he focuses on that.

Wilson actually focusing on something is a novelty, but in this instance it pans out surprisingly well. The entire story spins a yarn about Crowley which, though fictional in its particulars, shows a fairly deep knowledge of Crowley’s life and philosophy and a fair amount of research; Wilson’s erudition on the subject is especially impressive when you remember he was writing at a time before some of the better biographies of Crowley were extant.

Indeed, it is possible to interpret the novel in an entirely sceptical manner – regarding any claims about the Golden Dawn (and therefore Crowley’s A.’.A.’., his Golden Dawn splinter group) having a sort of apostolic succession dating back to the Knights Templar and beyond as spurious and regarding the entire thrust of the novel as psychological, and not magical, and for the book to still tell a story with a satisfying narrative arc. Equally, you can read all sorts of additional stuff into it should you wish. Squaring that particular circle is difficult, and it’s impressive how well Wilson does it. Although Illuminatus! would forever be Wilson’s major claim to fame, Masks of the Illuminati is possibly a better novel if you are after something that resembles an actual novel, rather than a bullshit session between two stoned philosophical autodidacts.

PC Pick-and-Mix 7: ‘Aving Another Go At Avadon, Getting Sick of Stasis, and Declining Deponia

Time for another entry in my series of shorter game reviews. In this case, I’m going to dive into three games which in principle I should have probably enjoyed more than I did, but which I eventually gave up on after varying amounts of time.

Avadon 2: The Corruption

This is the sequel to Avadon: The Black Fortress, made by series creators Spiderweb Software, and really once you know it’s a Spiderweb game you already kind of know what to expect – namely, old school CRPG gameplay with turn-based combat and tile-based isometric graphics dripping with indie charm.

One of the gripes I had with the original game was that it felt like it was all prologue – you spent the whole game encountering hints that someone was going to strike at Avadon, the secret police headquarters for the edgy grimdark alliance of fantasy realms known as the Pact, and lo and behold by the end of the game someone did.

This game is largely about the aftermath, and chasing up leads from that. Notably, there’s no real mechanism for importing your old game or taking your choices at the end into account – there’s just one canonical version of how that pans out, and that’s what you are presented here, with a new PC who’ll never meet your previous PC because the game doesn’t include the infrastructure necessary to enable that.

Now, to an extent that’s fair enough – why should you necessarily expect that by default? However, as I mentioned, the plot here kicks off extremely soon after the last game, and it also involves you spending a bunch of time in Avadon itself, and consequently knocking about in the very locale which was the focus of the previous game. To take another Spiderweb series as an example, it’s not like the situation with Geneforge and Geneforge 2, where a fair chunk of time passes between the games and they take place in different locations. In this case, it’s like you’re stepping into the door just as your old PC stepped out, and you’d really expect to see the effects of their choices up close and personal – but you can’t.

Still, for the most part I thought Avadon 2 held up a little better than the first game did; the real reason I stopped playing was that it did the thing which Spiderweb games often do, and upped the difficulty to the point where even if I cranked the difficulty settings down to medium, actually continuing to play would feel tedious and time-consuming. There’s an interminable bit where you’re exploring a lost temple and some plot happens which means you can’t leave to rest up, and I got into a bad situation where, if I loaded from a save before I got into it, I’d lose about an hour or so of game progression, and I just realised I no longer gave enough of a damn to repeat that slog.

Continue reading “PC Pick-and-Mix 7: ‘Aving Another Go At Avadon, Getting Sick of Stasis, and Declining Deponia”