listening to Spiders From Venus: Indie Women Artists and Female-Fronted Bands Cover David Bowie

Years ago, when I was first hooked by David Bowie, I went on an extensive internet scavenger hunt for any and all known rarities and curiosities, including bootlegs, album outtakes, literally anything I could find.  If I couldn’t obtain a physical or digital copy, I at least had this weird satisfaction knowing that certain stuff existed.  Sooooo inevitably, I learned about a compilation album called Spiders From Venus that consisted entirely of women covering David Bowie.  At the time it seemed potentially interesting but I didn’t dwell on it.

Nearly a decade later (just a few months before now, actually 😛 ) though, I found a YouTube playlist that had every song from Spiders From Venus in sequential order and a little while later I was losing my shit over iTunes not having this in their digital library.  So inevitably I tracked down a hard copy, which I received in the mail until yesterday.  I mean, seriously, this stuff should be way more easily obtainable than it is.  I know for a lot of people the very idea of a compilation album of covers of their favorite bands is kind of a gimmicky turn off, but as a die hard Bowie fan, I don’t think there’s a single weak spot anywhere on this disc.  Even though, inevitably, some tracks are more memorable than others.

Pitch Black Dream’s cover of Space Oddity has an ethereal, modern feel which I found welcome, but I also…erm…don’t really care for Space Oddity in general.  It’s like We Will Rock You by Queen or Marilyn Manson’s cover of Sweet Dreams.  It’s so well-known that it’s grating, even to fans.  I’ll totally cop to that being an irrational bias, but that being said, this is a decent cover.

However…The Man Who Sold the World, covered by Bug Funny Music Foundation, is a strong, recent favorite.  I mean, rather like Space Oddity and many other memorable, time-honored classic rock standards, it’s very simple, almost dangerously simple.  Simple ain’t bad, it’s just risky, and the hallmark of a good rock or pop musician is the ability to cultivate depth in a small space.  Because of it’s simplicity, though, Nirvana more or less did everything there was to do with a straight-forward, vanilla cover.  The live versions of the song from Bowie’s mid 90’s tours are atmospheric and ear-catching, but in a way they sacrifice part of the accessibility for the sake of atmosphere.  The Bug Funny cover, though, pulled off the dark science-fictiony atmosphere of the mid 90’s live versions while still keeping the riffy backbone intact.  And I love this woman’s delivery, whoever she is.  The wordless vocalizing at the end perfectly captures what she brings to the song. In general, I can listen to this repeatedly ( and have, since my disc arrived yesterday).

Joe K’s Kid covers Changes, which is one of the most starkly different from the originals.  The lead singer sounds very androgynous, with a slight masculine edge, which is fitting.  The electric guitar and the way the chorus is sung makes it sound quintessentially 90’s.  Like, ’94 alternative.  You know, slow verse fast chorus, like Where Is My Mind, Lithium or Today.

Kooks, covered by Andrea Perry- one of the less memorable songs, tbh.  It’s pleasant, but it doesn’t do much for me other than provide a segue from the 90’s-ish Changes to the whimsical cover of Moonage Daydream by Wendy Ip.  And that one is pretty strong.  It starts off sounding like a piano ballad which is amazing before the rest of the band chimes in.  The piano comes back at the end of the bridge which almost calls back to the fast, slow structure of the Changes cover.  I suppose it’s mostly strong- I feel like by making it more of a conventional rock song in the middle Wendy Ip missed out on the chance to do something a bit more daring.

Starman, covered by the May Hart Band, is another one of the better songs from this album.  It’s one of the songs I can listen to almost compulsively.  When I first listened to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars in my senior year of high school, Starman was one of the songs that I didn’t know what to make of.  One opinion I have that many older Bowie fans might take issue with is that I think his three glam rock albums from the early 70’s got better with each release.  Ziggy Stardust was a rough blueprint of what was to follow, Aladdin Sane was a stronger and more imaginative second draft and Diamond Dogs was the fully mature incarnation of Bowie’s glam rock swing.  I don’t know what it is about this cover that I like so much, though.  Maybe the camp is just more lucid in this version, or maybe the camp just sounds more playful.

Shesus covers Hang On To Yourself and it’s great.  I love the more jangly punk bands on this album, especially the ones that cover the glam rock material.  As odd as it sounds, Bowie’s glam rock meshes nicely with punk.  I suppose it’s no accident that Bowie discovered Iggy and The Stooges during an early American tour in support of Aladdin Sane.  The manic energy segues nicely into the more chill cover of Watch That Man by The Fur Ones, which has a softer vocal delivery that adds an intriguing change to the impact of the lyrics.

Yay Zeta Bane!  Covering Cracked Actor!  Freaking love ittt!!!  This is making me want to hear a female punk album covering Bowie’s glam rock material.  Very, very listenable.  I still don’t know what my favorite version of Cracked Actor is.  It’s sort of like All The Young Dudes in that nearly every live version is superior to the studio version (at least the studio version from ’73 or so that they put on Best Of compilations these days).  The Zeta Bane cover is probably in my top three.  The other two are probably from David Live and the soundtrack to the Ziggy Stardust concert film.

The spazzy bouncy happiness continues with Teagan and Sarah’s cover of Rebel Rebel.  The vocal delivery is freaking spot on.  It’s plenty loud and fast enough, but still has this distant quality, it makes me think of like…Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Alice Cooper with a female singer.

ALL THE YOUNG DUDES!!!  SWITCHBLADE KITTENSSS!!!!!  THIS is the definitive version of All The Young Dudes, as far as I’m concerned!  I mean, that beginning: “You know what I like about living in California?  All the young dudes!” Aaaahhhhhh this song was always meant to be a punk song performed by a woman.  This cover, for me, is pure, auditory crack.

Essra Mohawk’s cover of Golden Years is decent but it’s roughly at the same level as Andrea Perry’s Kooks.  I also get the impression that the lead singer is trying to sound like Bowie.  For all I know, that could be her ordinary singing voice, but it seriously sounds like an imitation of Bowie.  However, it is making me wonder what Essra Mohawk sounds like when they’re doing their own material.

Boys Keep Swinging, covered by Aspyg, is one of the more stark re-imaginings on Spiders From Venus.  It resembles Joe K’s Kid’s cover in how dramatic the differences are.  Based on this example alone, Aspyg sounds like a stripped down, earnest electronica band before that stuff saturated the market with the likes of Owl City a decade later.  I know this song was always meant to be a sarcastic riff on patriarchy which makes it a bit more accessible with a female voice.  I do think the Bowie version was a master class in camp and irony, though.  On it’s original album, Lodger, it also had a nice thematic consistency with other songs like DJ and Repetition.

Next, Astrid Young, daughter of Neil Young, covers Modern Love as a folk ballad, and holy shit if she doesn’t channel her dad.  This one hit me in waves the first time.  First impression I was like “Ooohhhh okay, this is like Johnny Cash covering Hurt, we’re taking an electronic song and making it sound as acoustic and earnest as possible”.  And then, after you’ve been listening for awhile, the slower pace actually let’s both the music and the lyrics breathe a little, which changes the character of the song a lot.  Not that I like the original early 80’s dance song any less, but this is some good stuff.

As The World Falls Down, covered by Ce Ce Zen, EASILY reaches par with the original in my opinion.  When I first heard this I almost wanted to stop it and listen to the Labyrinth soundtrack to make a comparison, and then I realized I didn’t actually want to.  This version of As The World Falls Down and the Switch Blade Kittens’ cover of All The Young Dudes is the kind of shit that makes me want to start my own band just so I can cover these songs myself.

OH GOODY 1.OUTSIDE MATERIAL!  1. Outside is criminally under-rated and for a few years it was actually my favorite Bowie album.  I still think it’s up there.  Anyvay, Lunasect does a delightfully crunchy industrial cover of The Heart’s Filthy Lesson.  Along with Joe K’s Kid’s version of Changes and Aspyg’s cover of Boys Keep Swinging, the mirror of Bowie’s own androgyny is beautifully front and center here.

Oh there’s a second 1. Outside song?  DOPE.  Hallo Spaceboy, covered by First of June.  The piano sections of the original were some of its defining qualities, courtnesy of Mike Garson’s genius.  The dual emphasis on industrial music and acoustic piano is still present in this cover and First of June makes both halves their own.  First of June’s re-imagining of the piano segments are probably the most distinctive quality, though.  Like Wendy Ip’s Moonage Daydream, I feel like this cover could have benefited from a little more risk-taking.

Next we have I’m Afraid Of Americans, covered by Q.  It sounds like something that should be used in a dark science-fiction video game, maybe something with a survival-horror angle.  I get the impression that this would be a fun band to see live.

Last song- Afraid, covered by The Jenn Beast Band.  Very lovely capstone for the CD.  The main deviation from the original is a hazy, lo-fi surf-rock emphasis.  This is another band whose live performances I wonder about.

The fact that the album ends with material from Heathen reminds me of the long gap between 2003 and 2013 when it seemed like everyone had implicitly decided that Bowie was retired.  There was even a biography released in that interim that ended with the author wondering, tentatively, if Bowie was done being a public person.  Then The Next Day was the biggest and best blindside ever.  Which then…leads us into territory that might be better saved for another entry.

So yeah.  Spiders From Vensus is a solid tribute album, well worth the money if you can find it on eBay or Amazon.  I truly don’t see how this flew under everyone’s radar when it was released in 2003.  It might not be everyone’s thing, but if you like Bowie and female-fronted bands, this is absolutely worth a listen.

ContraPoints just did this awesome video on gender critical transphobia and I’m stoked about it

Warning: language and political stuff

 

ContraPoints is my personal YouTube superhero.  Hands down, favorite social commentator on that platform.  ContraPoints is also one of those rare public figures who I find routinely thought-provoking, in her videos as well as in her debates, wherein she actually engages with the ideas of the other side.  I mean, as a transwoman myself she’s easy for me to root for- and I absolutely cop to that emotional bias -but for a long time trans issues have been used as bonding shorthand and a rallying point for conservatives, sometimes even among purblind centrists on the left.

Sam Harris, whose embrace of conservativism helped inspire me to start blogging, made his comfort with the right even more clear on a recent Joe Rogan appearance where he brought up trans awareness as an imminent threat to free speech.  Laura Ingraham from Fox News recently had a discussion on her independent show about how trans people are going to abolish humanity and usher in a transhumanist cyborg revolution.  Jordan Peterson has echoed nearly identical concerns, about trans people championing an ideology that runs against primal human nature and is designed to replace it.  Between, let’s say, 2014 and 2016, YouTube was absolutely packed with “cringe compilations” of videos from the channels of non-binary people.  Oh yeah, and Donald fucking Trump attempting to legally shut down the mention of transgenderism and transsexuality in medical literature last October and banning us from the military.

Transphobia is absolutely normalized and gender critical TERFS are only another way of normalizing and legitimizing it.  (For those who don’t know: TERF is an acronym for trans exclusionary radical feminist) Gender critical TERFS are especially pernicious because they actually do a careful job of consolidating a lot of older transphobic beliefs and attitudes and rebranding them in ways that are approachable for lay-feminists.  A lot of trans people could probably rattle off endless examples of this since, throughout our lives, they’ve been absolutely impossible to overlook, but most of the cisgendered laity are probably familiar with them as well.

For example, when Chaz Bono came out publicly, my mom said “I could see how a man might think ‘you don’t just get to have an operation and name change and become a man’ “.  When a high profile person comes out as trans, this is kind of a common reaction.  The generalized belief that trans identities were fake was made clear to me in early childhood, when one of my aunts came out as a transwoman.  Everyone referred to her by her deadname and the wrong pronouns, or sometimes invent a demeaning portmanteau of the deadname and real name.   During my upbringing in a small town in rural Alaska, if anyone was in any way not straight or cis, they would probably be referred to as “he, she, it”.  Exactly like that, typically.  Whoever was talking about them would finish whatever thought they had about this person and during the last time they used a pronoun they would say “he, she, it”.  In other words, trans people are either fake (msigendering and deadnaming) or not human (“it”).

In the last few years there have been many genuine gains for transpeople and our visibility has improved, but rather like women and queers in general, contempt for us is so culturally ubiquitous that’s nearly impossible to get away from.  What’s more is that the west generally nurtures a crab-bucket or zero-sum game mentality, where any gains for yourself must necessarily entail disenfranchising someone else.  Gender critical TERFS exploit the zero-sum game perspective by pairing female empowerment with the dehumanization of trans people.

The zero-sum game phenomenon has a lot to do with how transphobia is normalized: hostility toward queers is common enough on the right, but the right-leaning hipsters that adopt the language of libertarianism and the lazier left-leaning centrists frequently come together over hostility toward transpeople.  In a zero-sum game, it makes sense to be primed to fight everyone, since your gain must necessarily hurt someone else, and having an agreed-upon common enemy can alleviate some tension by letting people come together while also satisfying the need for a sacrificial lamb.

A common enemy for everyone can even be an open door for other oppressed groups: by slamming trans people, gender critical TERFS attempt to create parity with males within the patriarchy.  Whether this is intended by any single group of TERFS, it functions like that, since so many lay people on both the left and the right are prepared to attack trans people.  Circumstantial evidence is never wholly conclusive, but if the pattern holds true often enough it becomes impossible to ignore.  If the pattern keeps holding true and the involved parties deny it up and down, it starts to look like barefaced dishonesty.

ContraPoints brought this up herself in her recent video and it made me giddy with vindication.  Near the end, she summarizes how many common TERF attacks on transpeople end up supporting the patriarchy more than attacking it.  A common TERF opinion is that gender confirmation surgery validates the patriarchy by reducing manhood and womanhood to anatomical forms: therefore, for a transwomen (because, of course, they never address transmen), femininity is a weakness because it betrays submission to the patriarchy and masculinity is a weakness because it attests to the fact that they are not truly female.  Any and all gender expression by a transwoman is a chink in their armor.  One of them reveals the artifice of misogyny and the other reveals their essential maleness.  What this boils down to is that TERFS allow the ciswomen in their ranks to use body shaming and attacks for gender non-conformity against transwomen, which steps right in line with common patriarchal attacks on women and queers.  Essentially, TERFS are weaponizing the patriarchy while simultaneously claiming to be fighting against it.

I think I’ve made this clear already, but along with my vindication over well-constructed attacks on social evils that need to be attacked, parts of this video had a very personal resonance with me.  One thing that most transpeople have been asked is that “you say you feel like a (man or woman), but what does a (man or woman) feel like?”

Contra rebutted this as handily as every other fallacy the video addressed, but it occurred to me that there was an even simpler answer than the one she gave: I don’t know and neither do you.  Selfhood is a messy confluence of pre-existing psychological influences.  At its most substantial, it is a consistency of patterns, but there is no single defining aspect.  It reminds me of a meme I saw on Facebook back in like 2011 when a bunch of states were beginning to recognize same sex marriages.  The meme compared the United States to a bunch of other countries that have long since embraced marriage equality, or have legalized “gay marriage”.  The caption of the meme said “or, as everyone else calls it, marriage.”  The point was that gay people don’t get gay married any more than they gay park their gay cars or gay apply for gay jobs or take their gay dogs for gay walks.

This standard also applies to a lot of firmly felt identities.  The layers of your identity are absolutely real but there is no single quality in your subjective experience that makes them what they are.  To bring things back to the question posed by snide cispeople, “what does (male or female) feel like”, just try to answer that question for yourself.  Men do not man park their man cars and women do not woman apply for woman jobs.  Nor do men and women in general feel obligated to narrow down a single defining quality of their experience that makes them men or women.

So if there is no single defining characteristic, why transition?  Good question.  I’m a transperson and I don’t know why I was born anatomically male with female-oriented body dysphoria.  I seriously don’t know why that exists in my brain.  Bottom line, though, is that it does.  Do breasts, a uterus and a vagina constitute the essence of womanhood?  Absolutely not, but that doesn’t mean that women who survive breast cancer with mastectomies or that men with mutilated or genetically disabled penises and testicles do not experience anguish over what happened to them.

Men or women who have experienced trauma to their secondary sex characteristics often require corrective surgery and psychiatric care, and no one ever attacks them for reducing manhood or womanhood to body shapes.  Or if they do, they’re in the minority.  We could talk about social constructs and psychology until the cows come home, but the bottom line is that we all have some feeling of what our body is supposed to be, so much so that involuntary deviation from it, like dysphoria in a pre-transition transperson or the consequences of physical trauma, is psychologically damaging.

Everyone has these feelings but the thing that distinguishes them within transpeople is that their feeling of wholeness and connectedness with their own bodies matches up with the bodies of the opposite of their genetic sex.  And this is not about some metaphysical division between mind and body- my experience, at least, has taught me that one relies on the other.  I have always known I am female, but I have never known why.  And, like many transpeople, I didn’t have the chance to openly and safely talk about my cross-gender feelings until adulthood, which means I had a nice couple of decades of living as a male and doing my best to function as a male.  One of the oddest and most memorable experience of my pre-transition life were my friendships with hyper-sexual straight cismen.  Quite simply, they did not relate to me like they did to other males.  In public, my straight male friends would not often be seen around me.  If I approached them in public, they would be polite but aloof.  In private, though, I became a confidant.

Men often talk about their relationships with women between themselves, but among the straight men that I bonded with pre-transition, it became an almost urgent part of our friendships.  I think this was because many of them were serial womanizers.  What I mean by that is that they would try to have sex with as many women as possible, which entails trying to distance themselves from the woman they slept with last to make room for a new one.  They often made it clear that they believed women were fundamentally unethical and untrustworthy and even seemed to hate women, but at the same time could not stop attempting to have sex with them.  I was not, and never would be, “one of the guys”, but I was a sought-after listener for a tension that was guided by their socialization as men who must exploit women.  I knew it and the straight men who bonded with me knew it as well, but the frank reason for it was rarely breeched.  Now and then, when alcohol had relaxed some boundaries, they would ask me if I was gay, and I would honestly tell them that I was bisexual, but the investigation never went further than that.

Like I said, they knew it and I knew it.  I had always known it.  Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I would fiercely resist any attempt by my parents, schools or peer groups to conform to traditional male gender signifiers, no matter how benign.  Not only was it simply “not my thing”, but it was repulsive and I couldn’t bear it anywhere on my person.  Children can remain androgynous for awhile and I think the psychological violence of my repulsion afforded me a certain amount of strength at times that I could not have had with a clear head.  For example, in elementary school, I always took the girls’ pass to the bathroom.  I would take it to the boys bathroom, but I would never, ever touch the boys’ bathroom pass.  I only actually used the girls’ bathroom a few times, though, out of fear of what might happen if I pushed my luck any more then I already was.

Often, when I tell this story, people tell me I was brave for a little kid, but I really wasn’t- I was just viscerally upset by anything that signified that I was male.  Most of my friends were girls my age and I would have epic meltdowns when my mother forced me to have typically male hair cuts.  The older I got, the more I realized that the expectation that I “be a guy” was not going to go away.  I also realized that, as I grew older, any deviation from my assigned gender role would require an explanation, explanations that I simply did not have.  Like I’ve said ad nauseum, I do not know why, any more than any cis person knows why they are cis.  This unsolvable problem was exacerbated by a predictable load of internalized transphobia and homophobia- when I was thirteen and experienced my first really strong attraction to a boy my age, I felt like I would rather die than act on those feelings- I would rather be dead then be anything so disgusting as what I truly was.  Since I had seen others show nothing but contempt and hatred for anyone who was queer, I don’t think I could have felt any other way.  So I began to realize that I had absolutely no options.  My teenage years were ruined by gruesome nightmares and compulsive thoughts about genital mutilation.

In early adulthood, life sucked as hard as it ever had, but an extra dimension was added that was shockingly uncanny: I was commonly read and treated as a man.  It was wrong and intolerable, but it was true, and it was psychedelic at times.  I knew that I was aping the role I was assigned, simply because I didn’t think I could do anything else.  And like I said about my friendships with serial womanizers, the men that I became friends with seemed to be aware of the fact that I wasn’t a man and even valued me for that reason, as a friend who, perhaps, was not as threatening as their own gender.

Then, after years of substance abuse and mental illness, I began to seriously consider what would enable me to live a happy and functional life, and I realized that the answer was nothing new.

*SIGH*  Dang.  Big personal digression is big.  All that because ContraPoints briefly dealt with the TERFy essentialist “what does female/male feel like” question.  The answer is that I don’t know, and neither do you.  I don’t know why I’m trans any more than a cis person knows why they are cis or a straight person knows why they are straight or a gay person knows why they are gay.  And, as Contra stated, the demand for a reason is always used selectively by people who feel like they are in a unique position to give or withhold the legitimacy of another’s identity.  This kind of cultural gatekeeping is one of the main subjects of Susan Stryker’s amazing essay My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.  The essay relates Stryker’s experience as a transsexual to the creature in the novel Frankenstein, who, like a transsexual, is questioned by someone who claims to be able to give or withhold validation, who requires a justification for their existence.

I know that, to many modern readers, Stryker’s desire to appropriate the label of “monster” from transphobes and use it as a source of power may seem problematic.  I find it comforting, especially since so many accuse us of not being human or of being threats to humanity.  A huge step toward exercising pain and misery is embracing it, of embracing the fact that it is your pain and your misery, and it is right for you to take possession of it.  It’s also why I think one Anna Varney-Cantodea is worth a thousand RuPauls, since both Anna Varney-Cantodea and Susan Stryker frame the ownership of transgender anguish as a source of nourishing power.

 

Final Fantasy XV: Episode Ardyn (fan dialogue, fix-it fic-ing, tragic love done wrong, Ailix does fanshipping, etc)

Only a few days ago Square Enix dropped what is supposed to be the very last piece of DLC for Final Fantasy XV and it was…well…something.  It was something, anyway.

Not altogether bad, but severely flawed in certain ways.  Unfortunately, the flaws of this DLC echo many of the flaws in the base game so maybe that shouldn’t count too hard against it, considering the IP it’s a part of.  One of the weaknesses echoed here is that it’s just too easy.  I get that it’s short and episodic like all the other character chapter DLCs and not meant to last too long, but you can still pack a decent challenge into a small space.  Again, though, the base game is almost startlingly easy compared to any other Final Fantasy game I’ve played so far.

I remember when I got to the point where Noctis wakes up in a daemon-covered Eos I was like “oh cool, now we’re starting the second half of the game”.  That part does resemble how a lot of Final Fantasy games mark the middle of the story: FFVI is divided between the World of Balance for the first half and the World of Ruin for the second (I’ll try not to dwell on FFXV’s botched references to VI…).  The middle of FFVII is marked by the appearance of Meteor in the sky, etc.  While this isn’t exactly consistent with the pattern, FFXIII has you get kicked down to Pulse.

Soooo given the established precedents, night-covered daemon-ravaged Eos seriously looks like the second half is about to start.  And then you get that notice saying that once you enter Insomnia the final battle is afoot.  It was kind of a facepalm moment for me.  I had barely been playing the game a few weeks by that point and I was seriously taking my time, trying to absorb as much as I could and do every side-quest I could find.

There were two reasons for this design choice: one of them is that the majority of the content is post-game.  The second is that Square Enix was seriously considering a move toward a different business model focusing on MMO’s and mobile apps, with Final Fantasy XV being something of a transitional device.  Square evidently planned on developing a ton of DLC for the game, to be released over the next few years, and how that would go would be guided somewhat by player feedback.

So it pretty much was an incomplete game upon its initial release.  Maybe some of the super-easy, loosely-structured gameplay in the main storyline was supposed to afford wiggle room for other DLC and update doo-dads.  Evidently the unfolding of the central storyline was also supposed to be guided by reactions from fans.  The unfolding definitely was, but I guess there’s also room to infer that some of the actual plot details could have been governed by fans as well.  the Ignis DLC, with its multiple endings that would impact the story going forward, may have opened up a door for multiple timelines.  So who knows what that would have yielded if they hadn’t decided to stop at Episode Ardyn and put the rest of the planned story revelations into an upcoming novel or story collection.

Interestingly, though, out of the fan reactions that made it to the ears of Square Enix, no one had mentioned the super-easy difficulty as a problem.  In fact, they thought the part where Noctis is stripped of his powers in Gralea was too hard.  Sooo the game started shockingly easy and stayed shockingly easy throughout the exchange between Square and the players.  So Episode Ardyn can’t be singled out for that, exactly.  And I’m sorry if I seem like I’m spending a lot of time dwelling on a weakness that’s fundamental to the IP itself and not the specific fault of this DLC, but it messes with me.  Because it’s so ubiquitous, in almost every facet of FFXV. The Pitioss Dungeon was the one clear exception.  Costlemark Tower requires some persistence and grinding but isn’t really hard.

It also reflects badly on how Square Enix has developed other parts of the digital supplements, like the multiplayer expansion.  It seems like quotas of monsters to hunt is something that gets plugged in a lot.  I mean it’s most of what happens with the multiplayer expansion and the majority of things to do in Episode Ardyn involve wandering around and getting in fights.  It’s like they want to do an “open sandbox” design but don’t really have a good idea as to how to flesh out the gameplay in the “open sandbox”.  The multiplayer expansion consists entirely of kill quotas and the dungeons that get unlocked post-game from Ezma’s key are just successive subterranean rooms with monsters to kill.  If Episode Ardyn was the last DLC for this game, they evidently decided to end with what they did the most of.

The biggest map in the DLC is the city of Insomnia during your raid, with items scattered all over that become visible when you knock out a shield generator, and gimme points for destroying signs and cars and balloons and megaphones along with push-over battles with Insomnia’s military (the Kingsglaive, maybe?).  A few decades ago, there was some side-scrolling game for the Nintendo 64, where you play as a claymation monster causing random havoc in a city, Godzilla-style.  In elementary school there was only one other person in my sixth grade class who was as annoyingly hyper-active as me and we spent a loud, cackling evening once on that game.  That was what Episode Ardyn reminded me of.  Which is to say I had a little bit of fun.  It was easy to the point where I only got KO’d once and it was a simple planning mistake, but I had fun.  That new song they recorded for the orgy of destruction also got a smile out of me: it’s this rap-like thing that reminds me of nu-metal, an early late-childhood early teens throwback for me.

But it’s simplistic, and after spending much of FFXV not being challenged at all, it’s just sort of…like…having another bowl of ice cream for dessert, after your ice cream dinner which was smothered with hot fudge, caramel and pieces of Oreo and Heath bar.  Ice cream is nice and I pretty much always like ice cream, but there is such a thing as being overloaded on it.

That being said, the story complications weren’t s’bad.  It was cool to see Ardyn get pulled out of the Angelguard prison after two millennia of somnolent captivity.  By a young Verstael Besithia, no less, when he was young enough to have the features we’d see on the Magitek troops once they started cloning them from him…which is to say a face quite like our lil blonde friend Prompto in the base game.  It seemed like a neat, subtle thing to do- seeing Verstael and Ardyn interact with each other was almost like a villainous mirror of Prompto and Noctis (what with Ardyn’s connection to the Caelum family).

Next, we have some follow-up to some other revelations from the prologue anime that got released back in February which set part of the stage of the DLC.  When the crystal flashed and gave it’s choice for the throne, there were wing and blade-like shapes flaring out from it that looked like Bahamut.  Implying that Bahamut chose Somnis and shafted Ardyn and causing people on YouTube to make theory videos about how Bahamut might be the real villain of FFXV.

Early in the DLC, we get a sort of convoluted reversal of that which I didn’t fully understand.  At the end, though, there is a conversation between Bahamut and Ardyn that goes back to supporting the idea of Bahamut orchestrating Ardyn’s journey.  Ardyn learns that his death will carry the daemon’s with it, and when they’re gone, the need for a divine steward (such as the Caelum family) will go away- essentially, that Ardyn and the kings of Lucis will perish together in the end, satisfying his desire for revenge.

Bahamut has a similar talk with Noctis near the end of the base game about accepting his destiny graciously, which creates a really nice parallel that links us back to the brotherly enmity we witnessed between Ardyn and Somnis and the role that destiny played between them.  It’s a neat way of characterizing the Caelum family as a group with a light and a dark half that are both equally dependent on each other.

There were still a lot of glaring omissions, though.  The Starscourge began with Ifrit’s rebellion and the Starscourge was the whole motivation for Ardyn becoming an Oracle.  Late in the game, Bahamut and Ifrit continue to be big players.  Has this all been about human proxies in a war between the gods?  It’s definitely implied.  Prolly not stated to maintain the impression that the human characters are still centrally important, though.

The possibility that the whole plot of FFXV is built around a proxy war between Bahamut and Ifrit also supports the presented narrative of the Caelum family, of it’s light and dark nature that are divided by enmity and united by mutual dependence.  Noctis, Ardyn and Luna are all martyrs to a superhuman cause.

While Episode Ardyn may have aptly tied together a bunch of the themes thus far, I also think it supported one of the worse narrative qualities of FFXV.  Most Final Fantasy games have a halfway point where the world is in danger and the priorities of every character are either turned on their head or otherwise re-evaluated.  FFXV stops at the point where this would have happened- not just in terms of Final Fantasy‘s typical plot structuring, but they also truncate the main character arcs where, in older FF games, they would only just be taking off.

The characters if FFXV are barely required to re-examine or take ownership of themselves.  Sure enough, one of our last images in the game is Noctis and Luna holding court in the afterlife.  He seems to be sharing a happy ghostly existence with a woman he pined over but has not spoken to since childhood, so evidently the plot requirement that Noctis die has rewarded him for not growing up.  All the pathos of tragic love rewarded with total indulgence, culminating in the most saccharine portrayal of tragic love I may have ever seen.

Just on it’s face, this is lazy and possibly repugnant storytelling that glorifies an unrealistic picture of romance.  That’s bad enough.  Especially with stuff like 13 Reasons Why and the Twilight books fresh in our memories.  But it’s worse when so many of the older Final Fantasy stories have done better than that, often with love stories.  In VII, Cloud found validation for his sublimated identification with Zach through Aerith, which is a kind of morbid fantasy ideal, but in the end he was nurtured by his friendship with Tifa, whom he had known since childhood.  In FFVI, Locke gets wrapped up in a white knight complex over his failure to protect his dead girlfriend, Rachel, and during the World of Ruin segment, he can be found attempting to track down an Esper that he believes can revive the dead, which turns out not to be possible.

Even without keeping our focus on romantic subplots, a lot of similar things happen.  FFIX involves the search for a soul, which both Zidane and Vivi have idealized as an unobtainable seal of approval entitling you to your existence, and both of them learn that you don’t need any deeper validation than your own subjectivity and lived experiences.  I could go on.

I’m not saying old Final Fantasy games are Shakespeare or anything, but a few of these character arcs show genuine attention to detail and there’s no reason not to give credit where credit is due.  And like I said, FFXV breaks the pattern of something that was (at least) admissibly pulled off in a lot of the older FF titles.

Another reason why I’m dwelling on the botched portrayal of tragic love between Noctis and Luna is that, in one of the polls Square Enix took among gamers, many reported that they would have liked to have seen Noctis and Luna get their “happy ending”.  None of the fan responses brought up the issue that the relationship was over-romanticized and that it was based on A. a marriage contract between two nations and B. a childhood encounter between the two affianced.  There are ways to deal with political marriages in narratively compelling ways, but trying to make the two marriage pawns “true lovers” on the strength of a childhood meeting years ago, and nothing else, is not the way to do it.  I also feel like Episode Ardyn was meant to leave wiggle room for the “happy ending” with Bahamut placing Ardyn, fully clothed and with his social standing in Niflheim intact, at Angelguard again.  And we hear no mention of the raid on Insomnia with the younger Regis in the base game, so presumably it was purged from the historical record, implying that Bahamut can manipulate time.  That’s two DLC’s (counting Episode Ignis) that suggest multiple timelines.

I would maintain that everything I’ve written in this post so far is defensible but I’m about to get into territory that departs from actual sources and is total speculation on my part, or fix-it fic-ing.

What if FFXV actually had a second half after the global disaster, like every other FF game, and Noctis had the chance to make his own choices free of family obligation and unrealistic fantasies?

Who has been at Noctis’ side throughout the whole journey, expresses concern and regard for his emotions, treats him like an equal without pulling any paternal moralizing crap, and has a truly upsetting falling out with him that they bounce back from?

Prompto.  You read that right.  I think Prompto should be Noctis’ canonical love interest.  I’m not saying this trait is always a telltale signs of closeted homosexuality in and of itself, but just think about it: Prompto is really vocal about thinking this or that girl is cute, way more vocal than any other character.  The other guys in the brotherhood even rip on him over it, albeit gently.  For all of his chauvinistic noisemaking, though, he never does anything chauvinistic, toward a female or anyone else.  Prompto even seems to easily make platonic friendships with female characters (Iris and, in his own DLC, Aranea Highwind).  You could rebut this by saying no other male character makes any romantic or sexual moves on any female character, but Prompto is the one who sounds off about it.  Therefore, it is only in his case that the question is begged.  Prompto makes a lot of noise about how straight he is, but when do you ever see him truly bent out of shape over a girl?  Who is the only person whom he ever gets bent out of shape over?  That would be Noctis.

Another rebuttal could be that Noctis shows no visible signs of being anything other than straight.  I think this was a commonly voiced objection when Gotham briefly entertained a ship between Penguin and the Riddler.  Viewers would complain that Edward Nygma, aka the Riddler, never frankly expressed attraction for a man.  However, a lot of bisexuals can attest to the fact that it’s possible to cling to the illusion that you’re straight, regardless of feelings, if you only ever act on feelings for the opposite sex.  This could just as easily be true of Noctis if the writers cared to take it in that direction.

If the game continued past the first glimpse of the World of Ruin, we also may have seen a different and more compelling story about demanding to live in spite of a prophecy requiring you to die.  That, as a central theme, would have gone nicely with a new love interest once Luna was ruled out as a possibility.  And by new love interest I mean Prompto.  C’mon, Square, one unambiguous same-sex couple wouldn’t kill you.  They sort of went there with Fang and Vanille in FFXIII, but it wasn’t frankly stated.

Is this me airing a fan-fic thought bubble?  Totally, but I think it’s defensible by the standards of fan-fic thought bubbles.  If that’s too wonky, then I guess I’m just saying FFXV has a story that’s abruptly short and compares badly to many of the older installments.  Boom.  Ended on an objectively arguable note.

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker, the Hellraiser series in general, etc. (spoilers as usual)

Years ago, while spending the night with a close friend, I saw Hellraiser II and I did not expect to like it.  I like older movies and I definitely like older genre movies, but the pacing just seemed off.  Within the first few minutes, my impression was mixed but not bad: it begins with a montage of Frank getting his shit torn to ribbons and quickly cuts to Kirstie in the hospital catching up newcomers in the audience with the plot.  On one hand, starting with in-world jargon that you need to see a prior film in order to understand might not be an ideal way to start a film (this doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, though, and building on ideas in previous installments is totally legit- if I ever write about the Matrix trilogy here I’ll have a lot to say about how those films handled in-world jargon and successively building on ideas- which ain’t all bad, either).

On the other hand, it was a concise, digestible way of setting the stage.  Some of the jargon- cenobite, Lament Configuration, etc -eventually become clear through the way in which their used.

I was hooked by Julie’s entrance through the bloody mattress, though: talk about some well-crafted special effects for that time.  I especially liked how her red sheen manages to resemble both blood and something hard, like ruby.  The pacing and dialogue continued to be shlocky and uneven but the creature design came back to save the day near the end.

Most memorable part was when the Channard Cenobyte destroys the other cenobytes and they all return to their human forms.  Butter Ball and The Woman turn into dead humans that bear a visible resemblance to their cenobyte forms.  We’ve already known Elliot Spencer for a while, so Pinhead’s transformation doesn’t come as that much of a surprise.  The Chatterer, though, the most inhuman-looking of the cenobytes, takes his time reverting to his form.  His body spins on the spike that it’s impaled on a few times, alternating with reaction shots from the other characters, and slowly it’s revealed that he was a child.  Kind of a young one, to.  Evidently this kiddo did something before he died that made him the most non-human of the cenobytes (before the appearance of Channard, anyway).

Do their transformations actually have something to do with what they did?  Probably.  Channard is a predatory mad scientist and he grows syringe tentacles, so yeah it looks like it.  The direction and the acting of the cenobytes subtly draws your attention to the roles their appetites play as well.

When they first appear after the little girl in the mental hospital solves the puzzle box, The Woman is sharpening a hook-like weapon in these really creepy repetitive motions.  They’re both repetitive and jerky- either like she’s struggling to control herself or like the movements are painful.  This is the Order of The Gash, though, so the answer is probably both.  The two other cenobytes that aren’t Pinhead have similar body language at times.  This tension between not being able to contain your movements while struggling to move suggests both pain and pleasure.  It also adds a level of squick to the visible wounds of the cenobytes, such as the open cavity in The Woman’s throat and Pinhead’s facial pins- almost edging between painful and erogenous.  Again, Order of The Gash, so yeah.

What if Rick and Morty parodied Hellraiser the same way they did Nightmare On Elm Street?  What would they replace Pinhead’s pins with?  The Cabin in the Woods went there, with that Pinhead lookalike with saws coming out of his face.  Kinda giggle-worthy.

So inevitably I ended up tracking down the original book by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart.  Several years later, but still.  In the interim I had watched Hellraiser 3-5, but still had not seen the first one.  So while I knew the story of the first installment in broad strokes, I was basically coming to the book with virgin eyes.  I still couldn’t help but wonder how much of the lore of the films had its roots in the original story. While I was largely unimpressed with the third film, I did appreciate Elliot Spencer’s brief monologue during the Vietnam flashback, relating it to what he went through as a British RAF pilot in World War II.  And what about Angelique and Phillip Lemarchand?  I entertained theories: some World War II era encounter between Elliot Spencer and a 1940’s ancestor of Lemarchand that precipitated the whole thing?

Not really, as it turns out: Pinhead, in fact, has rather mysterious on-camera appearances- or the character that Pinhead derived from, I should say.  This person vaguely appears female at times but mostly seems gender-neutral, and is only referred to as the Priest of Hell.  Characters like Frank and Kirstie hear the Priest of Hell more often than they see her, so the appearance is not exactly emphasized so much as the personality.  Another mysterious presence is the Engineer, who is off-camera for most of the story.  When we see the Engineer, he looks like an energy being of some kind, a pillar of light that can, at times, focus itself into a human shape.

As the presentation of both the Priest of Hell and the Engineer suggest, Clive Barker achieves much by showing instead of telling, and showing by implication, directing your imagination while still letting it fill in most of the picture.  This is also a story where the traditional horror genre rule holds true: a story about a haunted house is really the story of the people living in it.  Appropriately, the human characters drive the entire plot.

Like I said, I haven’t seen the first Hellraiser movie, but I find it hard to think it could do justice to the compelling menace of Frank in the book.  Especially at the very end, when the Priest of Hell is prepared to close on her end of the deal- the Priest kept her hands off of Kirstie on the condition that Kirstie turn over Frank.  Frank, though, is wearing the skin suit of his brother Rory, and spins Kirstie a yarn about how Julie came clean and they both destroyed Frank together.  Kirstie is barely holding it together and she’s struggling to leave Rory with a smile on her face and get away, so he doesn’t have to see her get dragged away by the Priest of Hell.  Frank gives himself away, though, and Kirstie manages to trick him into coming clean in the presence of the Priest.

Speaking of Frank and the propensity of the monsters to straddle on and off-screen appearances, it’s probably his presence throughout the book that lets us maintain the credibility of the other monsters.  He was the first character in the book we met, so naturally we want to come back to him, a temptation that’s expertly used to build suspense.  The desire to get back to Frank sooner or later is maintained, after our first encounter with him, by little teases about his background and his relationship to his brother and his brother’s wife, Julie.  In fact, most of our view of the villainous side of the story is through the eyes of Julie, who starts out as Frank’s eyes and ears in the human world.

Frank starts off as our human viewpoint on the supernatural, and we begin to glimpse it with him- he shapes the very first, most basic steps into the world of the cenobytes, and we’re left wanting.  This tension transfers smoothly when Julie becomes aware of the supernatural presence of Frank after his death in the attic’s damp room.  It’s supported even more by the fact that Julie has intimate and painful memories of Frank, back when he was alive.  Her knowledge of him as a human connects us with him when he’s no longer a human.  The initial catastrophe of the ending builds on this as well- it looks like the undead menace that Kirstie wanted to trade for her freedom may have completely disappeared and been replaced by all the normal things she had lived with and grown to quietly suffer with- Rory and Julie are alive, doing fine, and Frank has been dealt with, leaving Kirstie to her fate.  With less quiet in the suffering to come, though.

I mean, the parallels that this moment of crisis has with her life up until that point are pretty clear.  She was always jealous of Rory and Julie and Rory was never hers; this whole event that tempts her into Rory’s life is predicated on his endangerment.  And the brief appearance of Rory and Julie as a happy couple at the end can literally send her to Hell.  Dang.  That’s some hardcore jelly.  To Kirstie’s bottomless relief, though, the menace is alive and well and she is permitted to play her part in the end.

Talk about a sweet way to bring home the forbidden desire theme.  That’s probably the biggest success of the book, though.  Not that it’s bad, it’s just not very ambitious.  I mean, it’s a novella, so no harm no foul.  What’s more is that a narrow, personal scope is just a prudent way to structure a story.  I don’t know if this still holds true, but when I was around thirteen I saw this documentary on Gore Vidal and the early positive reviews of his first book, Williwaw, which stated that Vidal avoided many common pitfalls of young writers, such as stories with intricate plots and a zillion characters.

If you stick to it too much it can be careful to the point of dullness or prudishness, but even so, it’s not something you can fault someone for.  So no hate for Clive Barker on that front.  The attempts at bigger thematic threads draw attention to the smallness of the scope, though.  All of the victims that Julie lures home to feed to Frank are brought back on the pretense of a casual fling, usually with married guys.  In all fairness, that probably would be a reliable way to bring randos home to feed to your zombie demon lover.  I’m not 100% sure how this bears up the forbidden desire thing.  Julie looks down on all of them and a few of them are portrayed as comically awkward.  Maybe it’s just meant to emphasize how fundamentally unsatisfied and lonely Julie is, feelings that drive her to Frank.  Or maybe it’s meant to highlight the growing gulf between ordinary transgressions and the world of Julie and Frank.  A few of the moments where Julie is fussing internally over the fine points of bringing men home and keeping them long enough to kill are almost delivered like punchlines, though, which doesn’t have a whole lot of precedent elsewhere in the book.  One memorable victim was a married Christian guy who got cold feet at the last minute and tried to leave.

Earlier in the book, the neighborhood’s local church is used as an opportunity for the narrator to remark that most religious devotees are going through the motions.  I’m not knocking the statement itself, but naked authorial utterances  can be…a little bald.  Maybe that dismissive attitude is meant to carry over to the Christian victim.  By drawing attention to a moment when the narrator took a step beyond narrating and started commenting, though, you just set up the audience to think that it’s going to pay off at some point and if it doesn’t it’s just an eyesore.  Especially if it’s a conventionally structured book and not something experimental on the level of Burroughs, and The Hellbound Heart is pretty conventionally structured.

There are also a few other hyperbolic moments that barely stop short of hyperbole and turn out to be statements from the narrator, but those are mostly just nit picks.  On the whole, I definitely enjoyed it, it’s a brief little supernatural thriller that delivers what it promises and handles themes like voyeurism and forbidden desire more carefully than a ton of movies in the same genre.

Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’

I finished Scientologist!  William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ by David S. Wills a few days ago and, for a book that focuses on something that some may see as detrimental to Burroughs’ reputation or intellectual credibility, I was often impressed by the sensitivity and objectivity that Wills brought to this book while also respecting Burroughs’ ideas.  Even with the best intentions, many writers that comment on the Beats either fail on the first front or the second: that is, they either fail at assessing the meaning of the more controversial experiences they had in common or fail to take the ideas of the writers seriously.  Even the close associates of the three main Beats (Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg) tend to fall into these traps.

As someone who has looked up to Burroughs as a literary and intellectual hero, I had mixed feelings about the news that And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks was going to be released.  Burroughs said it was not ready for publication and may never be, so releasing it after his death struck me as churlish.  When I finally read it, I found it to be an uneven but rewarding read.  The fact that it was edited and prepared for publication by James Grauerholz was also encouraging: Grauerholz had been a close friend and confidant of Burroughs since the late seventies and had made an adoring life’s work of curating and editing his body of work.  If anyone could be trusted to represent the perspective of at least one of the two writers of Hippos, this guy would probably be it.  Because of my misgivings I had about Hippos, I waited a good couple years.  In fact, I read the Barry Miles’ biography Call Me Burroughs and saw the film Kill Your Darlings before reading the Burroughs/Kerouac novelization of what happened between Lucien Carr and David Kammerer.  So I knew basically what happened.

The afterward by Grauerholz was also a good read for the most part.  If Call Me Burroughs had any mention of the disagreement between Kerouac and Burroughs regarding the merits of the book, I don’t remember it.  Soon, though, Grauerholz latches on to a rhetorical point used by Carr’s defense lawyer: that Carr was defending his honor as a straight man.  Grauerholz seems to think that this defense had some justification in Carr’s real life motives.  Grauerholz says that the murder had to be caused by shame and youthful impulse, full stop.

Hippos says little of Carr’s abuse by Kammerer starting in childhood and presents the scenario as a lover’s quarrel between adults.  So, if one confines themselves to that text alone, it’s conceivable (but not likely or defensible imho) that someone might get that impression.  Holding strictly to the letter of Hippos, though, is dishonest when it comes from someone like Grauerholz, who would be familiar with the events themselves and all relevant documentation.  Since all the involved parties are deceased, we have to conclude that Grauerholz was venturing a personal opinion.  In the closing sentence, Grauerholz says that “Lucien took, or accepted, the life of his mentor and soft touch, his stalker and plaything, his creator and destroyer, David Eames Kammerer.”  Meaning, apparently, that he understands the story of Hippos as a tragic love story and nothing else.

What really gets to me about Grauerholz’ word choice is that it seems to reflect some knowledge of the length and depth of the abuse Carr experienced.  It’s more implied than stated (“creator and destroyer”), but it’s hard to get around just how flagrantly Grauerholz is romanticizing child abuse.  It’s also likely that Grauerholz is either experiencing or anticipating some projection that the more blind, diehard Beat devotees may bring to the party.  To those who have cared enough to read about it, it’s known that Ginsberg justified the death of Joan Vollmer as the product of Vollmer being a strong psychic “sender” and Burroughs a strong “receiver”.  That is, Vollmer wanted to die and telepathically compelled Burroughs to pull the trigger.  Purblind fans are typically hyper-defensive of the people they idolize and, in the case of Burroughs, may arrive prepared to victim-blame.

While some of this confusion and projection was definitely encouraged by Burroughs himself, what with his insistence that he was possessed by a demon known as Bradly Martin, Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin or The Ugly Spirit, there are other situations where it’s echoed by people who should know better.

Then there’s the other common mistake of Beat commentators, which is failing to take their ideas seriously.  One of the most flagrant examples of this I can think of is the graphic novel detailing the lives of the three central Beats (No I don’t remember who it was by or what it was called, and I’m sure if the author could be bothered to notice he wouldn’t mind).  To say nothing of the fact that it fails to take advantage of the abilities of the graphic novel medium and does nothing that couldn’t be done with a short tract, it absolutely refuses to engage with any of Burroughs’ ideas.  Reading that comic will literally not tell you a single detail of his actual work.

Part of this has to do with the fact that most readers are probably heterosexual and even within queer culture the legacy of Burroughs is not easily understood.  Not only was Burroughs queer but, while the word likely did not exist yet, he was probably America’s best and most lucid critic of heteronormativity for the entire time he was alive, along with the other institutional evils he targeted.  I realize that to some this may seem like either an obtuse or trivial thing to praise Burroughs for- which makes sense, seeing as it’s so darn subtle and permeates so much of his writing in such delicate ways as to be hard to notice.

And so much of his work was so far ahead of both the straight and queer cultural curve for so many decades- by the time Burroughs’ celebrity as a writer and anti-establishment icon was cemented in the seventies, gay rights had fallen into the second wave feminist fallacy of equating sameness with straight cis people with progress.  This predictably left trans and gender non-conforming people out in the cold, reviled by gays and lesbians as uncle toms, second wave feminists as misogynists and straight cis people as just icky.  At that point in American history, when conformity to traditionally gendered body and fashion norms was being espoused by many queer activists, criticism of heteronormativity was only just beginning to emerge as a priority for many.

The criticism of heteronormativity in the work of William S. Burroughs bears directly on the fine points explored in Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’.  At the time when Burroughs was a child and coming of age, there was simply no easily accessible way of normalizing any variation in sexual orientation or gender identity.  Burroughs, along with any American queer person, had to go through life being pathologized.

Both Scientologist! and Call Me Burroughs mention that Burroughs did not know how sexual procreation worked until he was in Harvard and both mention that it was a shocking and dismaying discovery for him.  As strange as this sounds, I think it lined up with his lived experience at that point and even has a dark consistency to it.  If you were queer in the early to mid twentieth century, imagine being treated as either ill or evil by both society and academia and then learning that heterosexuality is tied up with procreation.  On a visceral and emotional level, it makes sense that one would feel rejected by both humanity and nature.  Burroughs did not have a productive encounter with psychoanalysis until middle age, which meant by the time a medical provider helped him to accept his sexuality, he had lived with that internalized rejection by humanity and nature for a few decades already.  If one had gone through so much of their life being told that they’re both diseased and unnatural by society and academia, it’s not at all surprising that the scientific mainstream would appear to be hostile and unapproachable.

Since Burroughs’ pre-occupation with pseudo-science and fringe science was a factor in his eventual conversion to Scientology, it makes sense that Wills spends a lot of the book examining it.  Barry Miles did as well in Call Me Burroughs.  But out of everything I’ve read detailing Burroughs’ passion for orgone accumulators, E-meters, telepathy and space travel, I don’t think I ever read anything that mentioned the possibility that mainstream science, during the early and mid twentieth century, had probably galvanized resistance from queer people with their hostility.  If one was queer and as educated and intellectually hungry as Burroughs, the apparent failures of the scientific community would naturally compel you to wonder about variations of science that had been pushed to the margins or even superstition.  While many of the inventions and theories Burroughs latched onto turned out to be pseudo-science, the emotional drive toward pseudo-science makes complete sense given the time and place in which Burroughs lived.

If Burroughs’ homosexuality complicated his feelings toward both physical science and psychology, then the abuse he experienced as a child had to have cast an especially long shadow.  In fact, this experience came up more than once during Burroughs’ auditing sessions with Scientologists.  Evidently, the experience enabled him to open up about it in ways that his psychotherapy had not.

Wills’ exploration of Burroughs’ psychology and his attraction to fringe science sheds some light on common ideas throughout his work that could possibly inform a new reading of it.  I think this is especially relevant concerning the parts of Wills’ book outlining Burroughs’ fascination with the Scientologist concept of the reactive mind.

In Scientology, the reactive mind can be loosely compared to psychoanalytical concepts like the id and the subconscious.  The reactive mind is the layer of the psyche that is the most in touch with the body and the sensory apparatus and as it reacts to stimulation it can easily overwhelm conscious thought.  Not only does the reactive mind exert a powerful hold over the rest of one’s self that can rarely be understood or resisted, it also retains the imprint of any stimulation it ever encountered, exercising the same reaction if anything resembling a past event ever happens.  These imprints of past events are called engrams, according to Scientology.

The reactive mind differs from the subconscious, though, in that Scientologists believe that it’s a foreign entity that has invaded the minds of every living human.  This seamlessly meshed with Burroughs’ prior belief in possession and the demonic as well as the role that possession played in Burroughs’ understanding of his murder of Joan Vollmer.  One could argue that his belief in the spirit called Bradly Martin was a way of exonerating himself of the murder, or one could stick to the letter of Burroughs’ utterances and accept that, whether he was delusional or not, Burroughs had been truthfully reporting what he believed to have happened.  In either case, his belief in possession played a huge role in how he processed the killing of Joan Vollmer.

It’s hard to imagine something more welcome to such a person than the idea that the subconscious and it’s record of traumas is a foreign spiritual invader that can be purged.  In his book, David Wills details both the Scientologist explanation of the reactive mind and the ways in which Burroughs altered the concept according to his own reasoning.  If you’ve read the body of work called the “word hoard”, consisting of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express, you could probably think of a handful of different ways that Burroughs re-invented the reactive mind.  A few of the biggies actually converge on the topic of heteronormativity, these being Johnny Yen and the other half.

When the character Johnny Yen is introduced in The Soft Machine chapter called Case of the Celluloid Kali, he’s presented as a Venusian demon that embodies the gods of all religions and maintains all religion through making men and women both dependent on each other and pitted against each other in a zero-sum game in which someone must always win at the expense of the other.  Orgasm is presented as a natural consequence of the zero-sum tension and proof of its necessity; the “bait” offered to keep everyone invested in the tension.

The Ticket That Exploded contains a similar indictment of heteronormativity.  As Burroughs had made clear in prior works, he believed that men and women were whole in and of themselves and had no need to be “completed” by the other.  Not only are men and women naturally whole, according to Burroughs, but in their wholeness they are so different as to be naturally hostile to each other.  This naturally segues into Burroughs’ lifelong suspicion of women and the association he made in his mind between women and heteronormativity.  When looked at carefully, though, the stated origins of these thoughts lead back to the animosity Burroughs had for the psychological model of human nature that posited heterosexuality as universal and necessary, which naturally leads to models of society in which women and men need each other in order to be “complete”.

Getting back to The Ticket That Exploded, though: that book portrays heterosexuality as something that had been sewed by hostile aliens, rather how Scientologists view the reactive mind.  Put bluntly, this is how it worked in The Ticket That Exploded: two complete beings (the two sexes) are taught that they are incomplete.  Already, they are primed to chase the solution of a non-existent problem.  In the fictional universe of this book, the farce of heteronormative dependence is borne up by the common mythology of the soul and death, which itself echoes some psychoanalytic ideas.

Myth number 1 is that death is necessary: if death is necessary, then the soul, the non-physical state of the self, must also be there for continued existence afterward.  If one is prepared to entertain the idea of the soul because they believe death is unavoidable, then the soul is a category waiting to be filled.  Meanwhile, the malevolent Venusian puppet masters are growing parasites in the minds of everyone on earth.  Burroughs describes this parasite as “the other half” and it’s essentially an energy refinery that turns the human soul into consumable energy for the Venusians.  What the other half actually does should sound very familiar: it rests in your psyche and gathers a sensory record of every viscerally painful or pleasurable event that ever happened to you.  This happens by draining the sensory information of these traumas and ecstasies as soon as they happen, turning into a repository that your personal history is placed into in order to be consumed.  When you die, then, the only remaining part of yourself that your soul can be paired with is the record of things that have already happened.  This is basically a siphon that your soul disappears into in order to be consumed.  As Burroughs put it in the book, “the other half is you next time around”.

The other half naturally fills the function of the Freudian doppelgänger, a non-physical echo of the physical self that was originally meant to save the self from physical death, but later turns out to be mortal threat that depends on the certainty of death.  In Freud’s break down of the uncanny, the doppelgänger is a frightening concept because it needs us to die in order to exist and is perfectly proportioned to fill the void we would leave behind.

Anyway, in the fictional world of Burroughs’ “word hoard”: the two sexes are trapped, by malevolent aliens, in a mortal scramble for a kind of completeness that cannot exist since both sexes are complete to begin with.  The failure of the pursuit of completeness is explained by the inevitability of death and suffering and the expectation that the completeness should be there creates a category that can be filled by the alien puppet-masters.  This expectation of an unobtainable state of being sets the stage for the other half, the accumulation of your past traumas that will envelope your soul and consume it upon death.

This actually ties into a deeper pre-occupation with death and the afterlife that Burroughs kept with him until his very last writings.  Repeatedly, but most notably in The Western Lands and the two books proceeding it, Burroughs claimed that immortality was attainable and the expectation that death should happen was to be avoided at all costs.  For our purposes, though, it’s enough to gather that Burroughs equated death the annihilation of the self and the institutions that furnished conventional notions of the soul and the afterlife, such as organized religion, were preparing human souls to be exterminated and in general preparing humans to anticipate their own destruction.  A world bound by the threat of a catastrophic and inevitable death, in this mythos, sets the stage for all of the other unsurvivable conditions that humanity is forced to tolerate, such as the unstable zero-sum game between men and women that heteronormativity creates.

Speaking of The Western Lands, the concept of the reactive mind even lasts as long as that book, which Burroughs wrote within a few years of his death.  The Western Lands contains a description of the soul derived from ancient Egyption mythology, as presented by Norman Mailer in the book Ancient Evenings, that is divided into tiers of different feelings and experiences that are struggling to bog down and consume the main self, such as the Ba (sexuality and earthly desire) and the machinations of the Sekem which derives energy from powerful emotional experiences.  There are benign manifestations of the soul, such as the Khu, which can protect your existence at its own expense, and the Ka, a benign doppelgänger whose existence hinges on your own and is the only one to be trusted.  Interestingly, none of the seven different souls are equivalent with your one true “real” self.

David Wills’ main assertion in Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’ is that Scientology cast a longer and more fundamental shadow in Burroughs’ thoughts and work than most critics and commentators have allowed, and a reading of the work itself definitely bears that out.  Another fundamental claim Wills makes is that Burroughs’ trauma from childhood abuse also played a part in his tendency to succumb to dominant personalities.  Wills points out the whimsical flexibility that Burroughs applied to the idea of facts, which for him was whatever he subjectively connected with.  His fickleness with his skepticism in his personal life can actually be seen within many of his relationships.  Perhaps describing this as a fickleness of skepticism isn’t as accurate as, say, a willingness to believe certain things that allow him to resist a feeling of helplessness.  This could even be traced back to the childhood sexual abuse he experienced.

A professional nanny, who eventually exposed Burroughs to the man who abused him, was the first one to ever teach Burroughs magical curses.  After Burroughs was victimized, she threated to put a curse on him if he ever told anyone what happened.  It’s hard not to see a link between these events and his lifelong obsession with magic, spirits and the supernatural.  That Burroughs often claimed to magically influence things far removed from himself speaks to feelings of both power and helplessness before the wider world.  His mind turned to curses, more often than not: he was fond of telling a story in which he cursed someone who short-changed him.  After the curse had been cast, this person lost both of his hands in an accident with open gas fumes and fire.  I am not a clinician so I cannot diagnose anyone, much less someone who has been dead for over twenty years, but I think the role of trauma that David Wills explored in his book was apt and has far reaching implications.

My connection with the writing of William S. Burroughs is tied up with both my literary ambitions and my own strained and occasionally torturous experiences with coming to terms with my own queerness.  This book was a welcome opportunity to revisit a writer who occupies a special place in my heart and reflect on his work with the eyes of an older female-identified reader.  Since Burroughs’ thoughts about men and women were often conflated, in his mind, with his animosity toward heteronormative society, these reflections on Burroughs have been particularly eye-opening.  Since Burroughs did not often differentiate between his thoughts about women and his thoughts about heteronormativity, he would occasionally come off as misogynist.  His eagerness to emulate Brion Gysin only exacerbated this.  It was his deep and profound attack on heteronormativity, though, that helped me believe that I am sane even though so many other forces in society insist that I cannot be and to trust myself enough to be own judge of truth and untruth and to discern my own unique path and calling.

Penny Dreadful reaction

Penny Dreadful is the Dracula fix-it fic I’ve been wishing for since I first read Bram Stoker’s staggeringly awkward and tacked-on ending when I was sixteen. Within the first few episodes it’s obvious that this show is a genre retrospective and deconstruction, which I gotta admit made me a little hesitant at first. Deconstruction and nostalgia is kind of the big thing right now, what with every other new movie being a remake, popular old TV shows getting reboots, etc. It’s also combining a bunch of different stories which is also a current flavor of the week- I mean, it seems like every other super-hero movie or TV show has some sort of cross-over angle. Penny Dreadful distinguishes itself, though, by being written by people who seem to truly love the source material, and judging by what they eventually did with the re-imagining of Dracula, they seem like they love the source material for many of the same reasons I do.

 
Even when they’re being faithful to the letter of the original stories, it’s still pretty bomb. Case and point, Frankenstein. So. Freaking. Welcome. After decades of adaptations who paid little to no attention to Mary Shelley’s novel. I mean, props to the Kenneth Branagh movie, Robert DeNiro makes a pretty neat Creature. That’s kind of the only nice thing I can say about that movie though. I haven’t seen Branagh’s Hamlet adaptation, but his Frankenstein film doesn’t make me too confidant in his ability to direct movies that he’s also starring in. That box being checked, Penny Dreadful seems like it cares about the letter and spirit of the work more than anything else. Other than the over-arching Dracula plot, it doesn’t try to adapt the blow-by-blow story of anything else. But it does use alternative details of Frankenstein’s plot points in really imaginative ways to develop new versions of the characters.

 
Mostly. It does have the Creature’s demand that Victor make a bride for him, but that’s used in a way that’s far more relevant to the characterization of the new Victor Frankenstein and Brona/Lily. Even though it’s the Creature that makes the original demand, everything that follows relates way more to Victor and Brona/Lily.
To almost anyone who has read Frankenstein, it’s hard to overlook the role of Victor’s attraction to his adopted sister. In Penny Dreadful, the sublimated incest is re-interpreted as a kind of sexualized father-daughter relationship when Victor resurrects Brona without her memories and tries to isolate her. This is an important detail because it begins a problem that may, potentially, last until the very last frames of the last episode of the third season. And it may even have some substantial roots in the original novel.
Mary Shelly gave Frankenstein the subtitle The Modern Prometheus and there’s more than a few analogies drawn in the text between the book’s plot and a sort of Edenic “fall from grace” situation. Prometheus and Eve\The Serpent gave humanity the gift of it’s next great step forward at the cost of a simple life. Shelley’s novel also begins with a quote from Paradise Lost in which Adam is wondering if the naked state of innocence upon birth can allow for any responsibility to a creator, almost as if innocence connotates autonomy and God should know better than to expect otherwise. So that sets a clear parallel between Prometheus, Eve and Adam speaking as one of the first creations in the universe.

 
These parallels matter in Penny Dreadful because of the various statements about the goals of Dr. Frankenstein throughout the story. Near the end, when the Creature is reunited with his human family, his wife asks him if Victor meant for his memories to be wiped. The Creature replies “his only goal was resurrection” and that any other consequence was accidental. The words of Victor himself do not seem to contradict this. In the original novel, though, Victor creates a being from different body parts with the expressed wish to make an original newborn being.

 
Getting back to Brona/Lily, this point of departure from the original text seems to be informing the new portrayal of Victor’s incestuous desire, but I’m not sure how yet. Novel Frankenstein starts with the framing device of Victor talking to the ship captain on his death bed and then begins his story from his earliest memories. We see Victor’s attraction to his foster sister blossom in childhood and early adulthood. In Penny Dreadful, we know almost nothing about his background and we see the incestuous dynamic unfold in the present of the story. And entirely through showing rather than telling. When Brona awakens as Lily, she’s absolutely docile and credulous. It’s kind of hard not to see the father-daughter parallel. Since we know that Victor’s creations in Penny Dreadful definitely had former identities, Victor moving into an authoritative creator/father role is really hard to ignore. What was shown implicitly as sublimation in the original novel is now a visible, front and center plot point.

 
I’m not sure what the writers were driving at here, but moving a layer that was implied in the original text to the level of plain visibility seems like it has got to be intentional. Whether this is supposed to give any new dimension to the incest, though, it does face us directly with the different pictures of the creatures as newborns versus pre-existing beings. After all, Victor is treating Lily like a (sexually available) newborn. And the story ends with Victor abandoning his sense of possession because he’s absolutely convinced of the authenticity of Lily’s pre-existing identity. If something ends with one side of two different things being validated, then presumably the discussion up until that point matters.

 
The conflict between these two different pictures is even more inescapable with season three’s inclusion of the scene from Frankenstein when the creature is watching a family from a distance. In Penny Dreadful, it turns out to be the Creature’s actual family from his prior lifetime. Something I should maybe get out of the way now is that Susan Stryker’s essay My Words To Victor Frankenstein Above The Village of Chamounix had a powerful and life-affirming impact on me as a young adult, when I was just beginning to come out as trans.

 
Both Susan Stryker’s essay and the appearance of the Creature’s human family both originate from the same source within the text: the monologue the Creature delivers to Victor on the mountain range, detailing his life experience up until that point. In the original novel, this is the first and only time we see through his eyes. Penny Dreadful used a scene described in the monologue as his literal human origin. I mentioned Susan Stryker’s essay because it deals largely with ubiquitous transphobic beliefs holding that trans people are artificial, medical “inventions” and transsexuality is therefore not real.
I’m not gonna have a big digression here talking about Susan Stryker or transsexuality, but I find Stryker’s parallel between societal repulsion with trans people with the isolation of the Creature very relevant to Penny Dreadful’s rendition of the Creature’s story arc. This show is, after all, contrasting the idea of Victor Frankenstein as the creator of new, original beings against the possibility of those beings having their own prior existence before Victor’s meddling. The repulsion with things that are thought to be a blasphemous aping of the work of God versus reverence for God’s creations is relevant here. And the possibility that the charge of being a false/evil creation is wrong is also important…and if it’s wrong, then the idea of a single God responsible for everything is suspect.

 

 

This is not the only time Penny Dreadful examines the idea of God, and this particular examination does not end with Victor setting Lily free and letting go of his desire to control and possess. While the rest of the events of the final episode are unfolding, the Creature has returned to his human family to find his son dying. There are a few transparent attempts by the writers to tie up plot threads before the final season ends and this is one of them: kiddo starts dying just in time to have an impact on the rest of the story. The Creature’s wife, remembering what her husband told her, wants to bring their son to Victor to have him brought back to life. She gives him an ultimatum: bring their son to Frankenstein or leave the house and never come back. The Creature choses the latter and then learns that Vanessa Ives is dead. Dot, dot, dot!!!!!

 

 

Along with the Frankenstein analysis of creation and divine sanction, there’s the lingering possibility that everything to do with the vampire plot points may be unfolding according to Biblical myth. The first explication we get regarding the vampiric source describes two fallen angels from the dawn of time, one of them confined to Earth and the other to Hell. The scarified writing on the bodies of the vampiric thralls uses language like “hidden ones” that later comes up again when Mr. Lyle is helping everyone decode the origin story written on random objects. Interpreting all this is made even messier since the big bad of the second season is talked about both in terms of one brother or the other.

 

 

At least, I thought it was unclear which brother is identified as the spirit inside the Vanessa doll. At times, it seemed that the Hell brother was completely off-camera and that, from the beginning with Mina and the Murray household, we had always been dealing with the earth-bound brother. Victor Frankenstein even asks if this is the same “vampire master” that targeted Mina and gets an affirmative. The on-camera appearance of Dracula in season three renders this understanding incorrect. It also seems much of the ancient lore of angels is not reliable- there is no reason to think that the brother inside the doll still exists. Evidently fallen angels are quite mortal. At least on Earth? Or something?

 

 

Anyway, Dracula is A. a fallen angel and B. the source of all other vampires. It is possible to watch the first season and think that the Christian language with demons and angels and sin and all the rest are things that the human characters are bringing to the party in their own minds that the supernatural creatures are taking advantage of telepathically. Dracula’s identity as a fallen angel seems to make it literal, though. During the confrontation in the asylum in season three, when Vanessa proclaims her devotion to God in the presence of Dracula’s projected astral form, is she talking about “normal” religious belief as we understand it, or is this God a being she personally interacted with? Or simply a language for the supernatural that her belief gives psychic power to?
Near the end of the third season, though, Kaetenay tells us that the prophecy of the Wolf of God was known to the Apaches and that it ties into the apocalyptic events foretold in the myths of all cultures. Evidently, at that point, the writers are easing off of the Christian language and are trying to portray the prophecies and supernatural activity as something that is known to all cultures and exists with or without human belief. The ending of the overarching story is not at odds with this change, but it ties into other themes that had evolved over the series in a way that could inform the story’s earlier Christian perspective.

 

Por exemplo, action versus inaction. Many character arcs in this show involve either a character trying to maintain the status quo of their existence or trying to change it. The vampire plot-line takes us, at the end of the story, decisively to a place that’s deeply involved with the inaction story arcs. Dracula begins to earnestly fall in love with Vanessa and wants nothing other than to be with her. Dracula tells Ethan that Vanessa is where she wants to be and she doesn’t need rescuing and he’s literally telling the truth. When Vanessa confronted him in the museum and he admitted to what he was, he didn’t force her to be “embraced” in Vampire: The Masquerade parlance (to embrace someone is to make them into a vampire). By way of agreement she says “I accept myself”.
Everything Vanessa does from that point onward contributes to the protection of Dracula. She and Ethan have a tearful goodbye before he shoots her, but just look at the actual consequences for the other characters. Vanessa persuades Ethan to kill her to make the diseased air go away, meaning she made a decision for the greater good rather than her own desire. So what about what she does want?

 

 

When Ethan, Malcom & co. convene in London and start the planning for their final raid, Dracula describes Ethan as the one who is prophesied to kill him, to which Vanessa says not all prophecies come true (paraphrasing, obviously). And she totally succeeded in protecting Dracula from the prophecy- her own death stopped the plague and therefore the reason for Ethan to go after him. At least from the perspective of external obligation- London’s not filled with an inescapable sickness any more. He still might seek vengeance. But by ending the plague, Vanessa got rid of the reason for everyone else to think of Dracula as a threat. Vanessa fell for Dracula as much as Dracula fell for her, and she died standing up for her love. You could argue that her own statements on that subject are ambiguous but look at the actual consequences: actions speak louder than words. And even confining ourselves to her words leads us in that direction (“I accept myself”/”not all prophecies come true”).

 
I understand that my digressions may be one of this blog’s shortcomings but stick with me here because this one matters: in Bram Stoker’s original novel, there was an early subplot regarding Lucy Westenra’s multiple suitors and the possibility of everyone letting her make her own decision. The subplot wraps up benignly enough, but consider how the character ends up. With all art forms that I know of, there are really basic inferences that can be used to deduce authorial intent. One of them is that if two things/actions/images/sounds/motifs/characters are placed together, the author either wants you to see them as connected or the author feels they are connected in spite of their intentions. Lucy’s presence in the foreground starts with multiple men suing for her affection and ends with her as the “bloofer lady”, the newborn vampire that gets the rest of the male characters involved in the essential plot. Need I say more?

 

 

Oh hey, something like this happens in Carmilla also. That story opens with some interesting plot doo-dads, like the question of whether the shared dreams between Carmilla and the narrator are predatory telepathy or if it has a more organic and innocent cause. But really it just turns into what modern readers would recognize as a straightforward lesbian romance. And shortly after Carmilla and the narrator confess their love for each other, the narrator’s family kill her off camera. The narrator is just sort of like “oh she was a vampire? ‘Kay, nevermind”.

 
I haven’t read The Vampyre or Varney The Vampire but at least two of the foundational vampire stories communicate a lot of anxiety about female sexual autonomy. And it’s not like that fear doesn’t bear itself out in the derivatives of those stories. Obviously, this is a trait of older, supernatural gothic fiction that Penny Dreadful attempts to turn on it’s head. Not only does Vanessa “grow up” in the end and make her own commitments on her own terms, but a few of the characters that represent Lucy Westenra’s suitors in the original Dracula novel are also re-imagined in ways that bear this out, i.e. Dr. Seward and Ethan Talbot.

 

 

The original Dr. Seward is introduced to us as the author of the medical notes in the subchapters dealing with Renfield and his “zoophagy”. Fictional in-world documents as a narrative device had already been used at the beginning of the novel to make the reader feel like they are getting a private glimpse of something from a second hand source. There is the excitement of eavesdropping paired with discovery- in other words, it creates a voyeuristic effect, like the reader is watching characters that don’t know they’re being watched and discovering something way more dramatic than “normal” secrets.

 

 

The medical documentation of Renfield is used in a similar way. We are seeing notes that lay people would not normally be privileged with and also getting more than we bargained for in the end. Essentially, the notes encourage the reader to identify with Dr. Seward, thereby exoticizing Renfield and what is happening to him. Like the female characters whose fates are presented as dependent on the male characters (with the exception of Lucy which conspicuously brings all the characters into the central plot), the person in the care of a doctor is turned into a spectacle. Not just a spectacle, but a spectacle whose potential freedom could invite disaster. With both Renfield and Lucy falling under Dracula’s influence in the end, it even seems implicit that these characters can never truly be autonomous- to lose your grip on them is not to let prisoners escape so much as it is letting your property fall into the hands of a stranger. The presence of the American cowboy suitor bottom lines this as well.

 

 

I know these sort of inferences could set people off and one common objection is that these conclusions rely on the implications of circumstance instead of openly stated intent. Again, with any art or anything created by someone, to put events and ideas close to each other in your work reveals that the author either thinks they’re connected or feels they’re connected. At a certain point, ignoring inference could lead to corrosive skepticism where you even interrogate sequential logic into nothingness. In other words, implied statements are still statements. In fact, I think any adult who has read Dracula would be hard-pressed not to pick up on this.

 

 

Anyway. The inversion: Vanessa, as a patient of Dr. Seward, is not something viewed from a distance- in fact, Seward furnishes an opportunity for explication and back story which further situates Vanessa as a protagonist. Renfield still retains his function in the basic story, as one of Dracula’s human thralls, but this time he’s Dr. Seward’s secretary. Even when Renfield is confronted and interrogated by Seward, his unlocked memories prove to be directly helpful to the search for Dracula. During Vanessa’s treatment, a moment of telepathic contact between the two women even establishes equality between doctor and patient.

 

 

Essentially, Penny Dreadful is attempting to reverse the portrayal of women in Bram Stoker’s novel while trying not to abandon the Christian framework altogether. While the role of Christianity in this story is handled with flexibility, the attitude of this fix-it fic isn’t altogether irreverent or dismissive of it. This could be that Christianity was simply too big a part of the Western imagination to completely leave out. Or maybe because the nineteenth century was a profound transitional moment in Western history, with evolutionary biology, psychoanalysis and the rest of modern science as we know it beginning to threaten religion’s cultural supremacy. In any case, Christianity isn’t just a force for evil in Penny Dreadful. It’s importance does fluctuate, though. At first the origin of Dracula and his disembodied brother are explained exclusively in the language of Christian mythology and then Kaetenay makes it clear that the Apaches are familiar with the same prophecy (is that true irl?  I dunno, I’m a different kind of Native), suggesting that all religions, like all humans, exist in the same world and therefore no single one can be the one true cipher. The flexibility also remains in the foreground by Vanessa’s struggle with her faith: she is embattled and feels committed to God, but since her stated belief is the most consistent expression of Christianity throughout all three seasons, it seems that Christianity has a bigger role with Vanessa alone rather than shaping the cosmology.

 

 

The presentation of the demon brothers emphasizes this neatly. The one that claims to be Satan will jump from body to body, taking and leaving different identities according to opportunity and usefulness. It’s possible that a few of the instances of possession in the first and second season could have been Dracula astrally projecting himself into another body, but it’s still obvious that while Dracula might come and go form his body, his soul has a mortal anchor. The soul of the second brother does not. One brother has a non-physical form that changes with circumstance and necessity, the other one may attempt this or that psychic ruse, but still retains a discrete, permanent identity. If we trust Dracula during his talk with Vanessa about vampire bats and nocturnal animals and his reverence for nature, then it seems like he doesn’t have very much conceit about himself. In his own eyes, he simply is what he was “born” as, nothing more or less. The plague unleashed by the embrace of Vanessa is an unavoidable consequence but not desirable.

 

 

Even though Penny Dreadful distances itself from Christianity near the end of the third season, the fact that the demon brothers were introduced to us initially as fallen angels pairs with the apocalyptic prophecy about Vanessa to keep the Biblical timeline of the universe at the front of the story, with the Edenic fall and the return of the kingdom of God on earth bracketing all of history. The second bracket, however, is pushed out of the way by Vanessa’s desire to protect the object of her affection. And the last image of the story is The Creature hanging out around Vanessa’s grave, taking us back to the relationship between the creator and the created. The timeline of the world’s salvation, beginning with the fall from grace and ending with the return of God, is mandated by God, and this portrayal of it ends with humans standing up for their ability to both claim ownership of their lives and thereby achieve peace with death. The dignity of the mortal, tangible existence is affirmed over the immortal and intangible one, which Penny Dreadful talks about in terms of a creator learning reverence and love for the creation. Neither a divine timeline nor an unnatural and sadistic ideal for a mortal being can survive natural chaos, and even the meddling of self-appointed creators can be reconciled with nature when those that survive “creation” achieve the grace that comes with owning your history, feelings and unique truth.

Let’s listen to Nightwish! (Showtime, Storytime)

Fair warning: lots of colorful language and a few emotional tangents.  Some of which may or may not be the kind of thing you want to read.

 

So for awhile I was planning on revealing this blog on my other social media which, over time, turned out to be less and less feasible.  While most of the content here is pretty innocuous, I do appreciate the opportunity to get a little more personal every now and then.  More personal, perhaps, than would be welcome to my immediate friends and family. Besides, if I keep them separate, it creates the chance for this blog to grow entirely on it’s own momentum without relying on large numbers of people who know me irl.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m going to go ahead and say that for years I’ve struggled with alcoholism.  For nearly a decade I was very good at hiding it and, while it never interfered with my job, it did take a toll on my mental health and relationships.  And lately I’ve been sober for longer than I have been in almost ten years.

When one starts to distance themselves from substance abuse it’s interesting to revisit the things that you used to experience often while under the influence.  While one may remember what it was like to be a heavy user, it’s interesting to go back to things from that time with a sober frame of reference.

This brings us to the concert video and live album Showtime, Storytime by the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish.  Between 2013 and 2015, I would often watch the whole thing on YouTube from beginning to end.  Not that I didn’t appreciate Nightwish while sober- I absolutely do, but for some reason that particular concert recording had a special resonance for super-wasted Ailix.  No clue why.  Anyway, I was putzing around the internet a few days ago and I came across a few clips of my favorite songs from that concert, which led me to buy the live album on iTunes.  So here we are, with a disjointed live-blogged listening party-

We start, then, with Dark Chest of Wonders and Wish I Had an Angel.  When I first started listening to Nightwish, it was a few years after the release of Dark Passion Play and a person I was in a relationship with at the time swore up and down that Annette Olzon was horrible and the memory of Nightwish should begin and end with Tarja Turunen.  I soon learned that this issue was widely dividing Nightwish fans at the time.  By nature I’m sometimes inclined to be contrary, though, and I didn’t sample any of Tarja’s work until years later.

When I did finally listen to Once, Tarja’s final Nightwish album and one of their most beloved by fans, I was very pleasantly blown away.  Put simply, it made me feel like I was chopping heads off from horseback on a medieval battlefield, which I know many Nightwish fans can relate to.  While I appreciated the opening two tracks (Wonders+Angel) they’re far from the strongest part of Once.  Nonetheless they made my little high-fantasy loving heart giddy.  Wish I Had an Angel reminded me of a Final Fantasy boss fight.  As I listen now with sober ears, I’m loving the difference between Tarja and the vocalist on this recording, Floor Jansen.  Particularly the non-verbal notes while bassist Marko takes the vocal foreground during the chorus.  The original album recording had this intense, narrowed feel, which definitely suits the song, but I love how the open feeling of the live setting gives it some energetic breathing room.

And now we’re at She Is My Sin, which I never heard before, and so far so good.  To my recently detoxed brain, it’s apparent that Floor Jansen is adept at straddling a middle ground between Tarja’s classical vocal acrobatics and Olzon’s rock / musical theater voice.  This particular song is well-suited to that middle ground, as it doesn’t straddle genre’s in the blatant way that Nightwish is famous for.  A conventional bottom-line of rock is a good idea in a song that has a lot in common with ordinary heavy metal with a few more flamboyant symphonic flourishes here and there.

GHOST RIVER!!!!!!!!!!!! Love this song from Imaginaerum!  Both the vocals and the instrumentals straddle metal and musical theater.  I can easily imagine this in a high-fantasy video game or a supernatural cinematic musical with a nice fat budget.  Marko and Floor (also Olzon on the original) sound like they could easily be playing characters.  I have seen the film Imaginaerum and there were a few cool, dramatic visual interpretations, but I sorta felt the absence of Ghost River.  And holy sh!t do I ever love Marko on this song.  One of the things I really loved about Imaginaerum the album is how it kept the symphonic metal blend while creating something that sounded a little more suited to a cinematic musical, maybe something with a bit of irreverent whimsy, a cinematic musical by Darren Arronofsky, Julie Taymor, Terry Gilliam or maybe the Watchoskis or an animated film by Henry Selick.  With a plot dealing with the transmigration of souls and the afterlife, of course.

Hey there, Ever Dream.  I fucking love this song.  I want to make a movie or a video game just so I could use Ever Dream in the trailer.  I’d say, for this live album, we’re staying in the milieu of Ghost River with this choice.  While the electric guitars seem a little more noticeable in this song (is that just me?) it’s still at that experimental cinematic musical sweet spot.  Aaaaaagh I almost can’t assess this live recording rationally.  I remember being super-wasted and wishing with my whole heart that I was Floor Jansen while I watched her sing this song.  Jesus fucking Christ why is the original studio recording of this song so fucking hard to find on the American market BLAAARRRGGHHHHjfiadjfilksjaefj;oiejfoijiJOLDJFDSKFLSFIJSEEOIHF

Alrighty, what next.  Storytime, shit yeah.  My favorite single from the Annette Olzon era.  Very Henry Selick, Arronofsky and Taymor.  Listening to Imaginaerum is sort of like listening to the freeware Smashing Pumpkins album Teargarden by KaleidyscopeMechanical Animals or Holy Wood by Marilyn Manson, Halfaxa or Visions by Grimes, Flowers and Formaldehyde by Sopor Aeternus or the Silent Hill 4 soundtrack.  I actually heard the SH4 soundtrack before playing the game and it stands on it’s own as an album so fucking well.  But yeah, like those other albums, it’s like I can feel and sort of see a story going through my head as I listen to Imaginaerum or any version of any song from it.

I Want My Tears Back is on now.  Was this song released ahead of the Imaginaerum album, promotional style?  Like, around the same time as they dropped Storytime as a single?  I think I heard it ahead of the album and I was sort of…doubtful, at the time.  It reminded me a little too much of The Islander.  As if they were trying to squeeze a formula for all it was worth.  It made me afraid that the album was going to be trying to milk the concept of a Celtic-sound with Marko singing lead in a completely cynical way.  Luckily I was wrong.  Not that I dislike The Islander- I love that shit, it’s just that my gimmick hackles went up a little when I heard I Want My Tears Back ahead of Imaginaerum.  A part of me sort of wishes Annette stayed around longer.  Maybe I should check out what she’s doing with the Dark Element.  Oh well.  Pretty sweet shredding on this live version.

Nemo!  Sh!t yeah.  One of the more luxuriously visual songs from Once. With a lot of frank literary references in music and other mediums, I don’t instinctively think of any literal expression of the original.  Which is good- making something your own goes a long way.  When I listen to this, though, I either think of vampires or the version of Captain Nemo from Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.  Anna-Varney Cantodea couldn’t resist riffing on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea either, on the A Strange Thing To Say EP.  The title track from A Strange Thing To Say– that is some shit I would love to see live if Anna-Varney ever broke her rule about never performing.

Aaaaaand what do we have here?  Ooooh cool.  Last of the Wilds.  Either I never saw / heard this back when I was drinking whiskey and vodka like there was no tomorrow or I blacked it out.  I fucking love that intro though.  Very different from the Dark Passion Play original. I’m kinda liking this better than the original, honestly.  Aaaaahh Nightwish, you’re so fucking perfect.  I’m checking out Endless Forms Most Beautiful.  I was grossed out early on when they had bitchy stupid anti-feminist douchebag Richard Dawkins doing a spoken word segment at first, but I think  I can get over that.  Sam Harris kept his intellectual integrity and passion for philosophy for years before he sold out to the right in the wake of the 2016 election, so I’m willing to believe that the so-called Brights of yesteryear aren’t all bad.  That dude was so much cooler back when he was talking about the philosophical dimensions of neurological research and meditation and, you know, not giving platforms to amoral, fascist-friendly dipshits like Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray.

Bless the Child!  I either scorched that part of my memory clear with alcohol back then or I never saw it.  Very cool so far, though.  The chugging metal guitar and Floor Jansen’s non-verbal singing in the beginning makes me think of the opening of a horror-themed action movie from the eighties or early nineties.  Something with colorful magic creatures and demons and vampires and shit.  I’m getting a self-contained vibe from it- possibly for no better reason than that I never heard it in the context of its original album -but I’m liking that effect.  Like a flash-fiction story or something.  I think this is gonna end up being something that I listen to all the damn time like Ever Dream.

Oh hey, Marko is addressing the audience, talking about a previously established tradition I know nothing about, involving a recitation of an open letter to either an imaginaery or hypothetical significant other.  Is that the tradition, or is the live recording of the DVD the tradition?  Hm.  The dude loves sausages, apparently, and with that disclosure we will proceed to Romanticide.

Already I’m loving the different feel that Floor Jansen is adding.  I don’t know if this is her, the soundboard arrangement of the recording or both, but I feel like her voice is more in the foreground and it’s giving this song way more personality than the original.  I think this was something the former significant other (from the beginning of the post, remember her?) and I used to go the rounds over.  She’s actually a classically trained soprano and a music nerd’s music nerd.  As such, she was able to appreciate the operatic chops of Tarja Turunen better than I could.  Anyway, I’m loving it when Floor get’s guttural with her voice- and holy shit, did the drums sound that good on the original?  Holy shit, sweet skin-pounding with Marko singing while Floor does that sweet fucking dramatic metal snarl with her huge-ass voice.

Oh hey, Amaranth!  That’s pretty cool.  The call-and-response with the crowd is a neat touch.  For a giant horde of randos, they sound pretty good.  Sorta like Dark Chest of Wonders, though, this is kind of a typical metal song which has it’s own set of limits.  That call-and-response with Floor’s delicious enthusiasm gives an exhilarating sense of the hugeness of the venue and the performance.  Gaaahhh I’m won over, this totally mops of the floor with the original album version.

GHOST LOVE SCORE SHIT YAAAAZZZZZZ!!!!!!!!  Fuck yeah.  I remember listening to this song a lot around the time I was reading the Anne Rice book Cry To Heaven and I instinctively associate it with Tonio Treschi and his gradual climb toward vengeance near the end.  And it’s such a gloriously huge sounding song and with so many other songs on this album I think of gloriously explosive high-fantasy chaos, but Ghost Love Score reminds me of Cry To Heaven of all damn things.  I guess it also kinda makes me think of things that were happening around that time.  I had just come back to my hometown and I was struggling with this dread that I may have to be totally closeted for the rest of my life and just acclimate myself to sneaky, fearful, private crossdressing and alcoholism.  Yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s strong emotional connotations there.  I had to reiterate my promise to myself not to commit suicide like every damn day, only to break that promise years later.  And then pick up the pieces after that particular disaster.

And holy shit, does Floor ever make this song her fucking own.  This woman is a fucking miracle of a singer.  Someone needs to cast her as a swash-buckling dark anti-hero in a high fantasy cinematic musical.  Maybe some sort of bad-ass, brooding, gothy super-heroine version of Gerda in a dramatically interpretative movie-musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.

Song of Myself!  One of my absolute favorites from the intoxicated nights of hard liquor and dark, dramatic music!  And of course her voice is this total personification of a blood-letting superheroine.  I mean, I really do appreciate the work Annette Olzon did with the band, but if Tuomas & co. decided to re-record the two Annette Olzon albums with Floor, I’d be okay with that.  This live version dispenses with the spoken word segments that were at the end of the album version, which I can live with.  The thing with mediums like rock bands, where you are expected to do live versions of old material regularly, it makes sense that you’d have to reinterpret them every now and then to suit the band’s current creative swing and the sensibilities and aptitudes of any personnel changes.  Some musical acts are absolutely amazing at that.  This one, for example.

Our next song is Last Ride of the Day.  I’m fucking ready.  The back and forth between Floor and Marko is fucking awesome in this version, and I feel like this is sort of a return to the same feel that the live version of Ghost River had earlier but more pounding and urgent.  Aaaahhh the fireworks.  Sigh.  I remember that from the YouTube video(s).

And we’re closing with the Imaginaerum outro.  I don’ think I ever stuck around for this back when I was drinking.  I can tell things are happening on stage from the crowd noises.  This is a nice little breather, easing us out of the listening experience.  Which I appreciate.  I mean, I figured Showtime, Storytime would hold up well from a sober perspective but goddamn.  I’m definitely gonna be playing the shit out of this album.