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.

More FFIV lore analysis

I have, at last, vindicated the frustration of twenty-one year old Ailix and beat FFIV. There was a bit of the typical Final Fantasy difficulty spike before the final boss but nothing too spooky compared to VI, VII, VIII or XIII. As has been typical of this playthrough, all of the real grindy grind marathons have been entirely because I decided I wanted to. When I first played through FFVII I got on this crazy, single-minded kick of wanting every character’s ultima(te) weapon. FFIV was pretty quick and painless in that regard. The one that really seemed to require effort was Edge’s Masamune and Murasame, since one of them is pretty deep in the final dungeon and protected by some fairly tough monsters. Excalibur, meanwhile, was a fetch quest that’s kind of a walk in the park if you’ve waited until the very end of the game to do it. I may be inclined to be blasé, though, since I had already completed the Feymarch dungeon and collected the rat tail without knowing what it was for beforehand. As frustrating as that particular dungeon was at times, I had a lot of fun with it.

If you’re reading this for helpful notes it may behoove me to mention that you might want to have both Porom and Rosa in your party for the final battle with Zeromis. With Rosa absolutely maxed out, of course, with Holy in her repertoire. You’ll also want to buy as much elixirs and dry ethers from the Hummingway cave as you can (the Hummingway cave had a bit of a Twin Peaks vibe. Lots of colorfully dressed short creatures making discordant, electrical-sounding noises…).

Basically, if you Holy spam the crap out of Zeromis with another reasonably maxed out white mage on healing detail with everyone else doing decent damage (having Rydia summon Bahamut repeatedly sure won’t hurt, if you’ve managed to navigate the Cave of the Father) while being absolutely shameless with keeping everyone doused with elixirs, you should do okay. I didn’t feel too much like a lame-ass for using elixirs like that, since Zeromis will screen nuke you repeatedly and if you get stuck in a rut of trying to revive multiple party members with phoenix downs on one turn and then healing them another…well, that gets you in a downward spiral that’s real hard to climb out of. I mean…if you have the Asura summon, that could be occasionally helpful, but what she does once summoned is just too random to be reliable.

BTW I deduced the thing about having two white mages in retrospect: I just went in with my normal arrangement (Rosa, Edge, Cecil, Rydia and Kain) and almost didn’t make it. Basically, Rosa was on both Holy and healing duty. Which turned out not to be feasible. And I barely had enough elixirs. I was one away from being out, with only Rydia and Kain still alive, when Kain came down from a Jump and wasted the bastard. Rydia was pretty low on MP also; I’d more or less resigned myself to dying while trying to get her to Osmose her way back up to the point of being able to summon when Kain miraculously won the fight. A satisfying final boss, really. When judged solely as a boss fight, anyway.

This game has many of the same narrative strengths and weaknesses of Final Fantasy XIII. Both stories do a great job of discussing themes while also being lazy with plot construction. When a story does a good job of discussing ideas while failing to get you to care about its characters it creates a funny feeling of watching something archetypal. Which could turn out to be true, but even then, those archetypal tropes and comments don’t create depth in and of themselves.

The concept of Zemis/Zeromis ties into both the thematic strength and the narrative weakness. With fantasy stories with fictional worlds that could, potentially, be constructed in a total vacuum with no reliance on the real world, the consistency and integrity of the world building is more open ended and therefore more delicate. With no correlating outside material (other than other sources taking place in the same fictional universe) you’re kind of trusting the storyteller 100%. You are anyway in a lot of cases, but the totality of the storyteller’s job get’s starker and more delicate the more unrestricted they are.

The really big narrative weakness in Final Fantasy IV is something that can easily happen in fantasy stories with an alien-invasion plot. World A is the world we spend most of our time in and it’s the one we get the most immersed in (Earth or Gaia or whatever. The Blue Planet). Since the unfolding of a plot has to happen through gradual revelations, there are necessarily parts that look like blank spots until they are revealed or explained, and the mystery of the blank spaces is usually something that keeps you interested until the end.

Anyway, there were obscured plot details that were resolved with the appearance of World B: The Red Planet, or the moon. In a fantasy setting, bringing in a separate world that informs things about another has the potential of subverting one set of rules with a completely new set of rules. Final Fantasy IX sidestepped this by having the Terrans be almost completely off-camera- we only see their biomechanical creations and future host bodies. Same goes for Jenova and the Cetra in VII- the original worlds of both groups are totally off-camera with only the most relevant details being visible.

In Final Fantasy IV, we get to set foot on the other world. I mean, we don’t get full immersion- the aliens are still in cold storage waiting for their custodians to find and prepare their new home. We have the Crystal Palace, the Cave of the Father, Hummingway village and the Lunar ruins- that last one I haven’t explored yet, though.

With both IV and IX, you could argue that the World B changes the rules up to that point. In IX, though, less things are stated openly. Some people have a variety of theories about whether or not Necron was present beforehand, what precisely is happening in Memoria, why Memoria is there, etc. I have my own interpretations of all that which I might get into in a later post, and I think the game offers more than a Rorschach ink blot to go off of. What I mean is that you can credibly infer what is going on from the implications. But because so much is implied in IX, it’s possible to finish that game with a personal interpretation that keeps everything in the same world with the same set of rules. I don’t think that’s sound way to “read” FFIX, but because so much is not said openly, the player has a lot of latitude to make their own interpretations. FFIV has less latitude, though.

For one, Zemis/Zeromis is tied directly to both the thematic threads and his utterances are so reminiscent of certain plot points that it’s hard not to think that he’s talking literally about how the fictional world works. And he does not say much. He only tells Golbez that his commitment to a path of darkness is irrevocable and that “the crystal cannot cleanse your sins”. This isn’t just a thematic nod, since the story on the mythgraven sword describes a hero who goes from “dark” to “light”. I mean, we see moral reversals and forgiveness all the time in this game- Cecil razed Rydia’s village at the very beginning, after all. But the mythgraven blade tells us that the journey through sin and absolution is literally a part of the world building mechanics. And Zemis’s transformation into Zeromis is only explained as his hatred “growing stronger” after his death. Which supports the possibility that moral and spiritual states of being have material expressions in the world of Final Fantasy IV.

Before moving on, there is a phrase describing a trope that covers events like this: the power of love. Trinity brings Neo back to life with her love in the first Matrix film. Steve Martin changes the polarity of the earth to stop a plane from taking off to keep a girl he likes nearby in The Jerk. That’s basically how the “power of love” trope works.

While what happens with Zeromis is credited to hatred, it still has the basic mechanics of the “power of love” trope. Something happens for no other reason than a powerful emotional cry going out to the universe. You could reasonably call it the “power of prayer” also. Harry Potter takes advantage of the power of love trope, but also manages to incorporate it into its world building, making it less of a naked, self-justifying trope. I’m not sure if Final Fantasy IV makes that transition successfully or not. It’s clearly supposed to.

The reason I’m droning on about this trope and it’s common usage, though, is because it’s widely disliked for a reason close to all this: the power of love trope has a tendency to subvert the constancy of the world building or “rules” of a story. It’s a commonly used deus ex machina. This is also the risk of bringing in the rules of a second fictional world when the player/reader/viewer/whatever has spent so much time getting used to the rules of a first one.

This destabilizing risk at play with both the “power of love” trope and the appearance of a second set of fictional rules are tied together in that the aliens in FFIV are something of a founder race of the first planet. The Tower of Babil has been there for the entire history of the Kingdom of Eblan. It seems like that, anyway, no one there seems to remember a time when it wasn’t there. The Lunarians also know a ton of specifics about how the crystals work and the Earthlings seem like they just worship them as forces of nature that have always been there. The crystals are the McGuffin tying this plot together and it seriously looks like the Lunarians have all the answers regarding them. The Lunarians have also been technologically advanced for much longer than the Earthlings and will even sow bits of knowledge Prometheus-style (Cecil’s dad and the airship technology…). So it looks like the crystals may actually be a creation of the Lunarians- not divine elemental sources after all, but technology that controls the elements. An apparently controversial technology- the mythgraven blade says one thing and Zeromis says another -but still technology in all likelihood.

Because the Lunarians are the founder race and this is a story about ancient aliens, we have to take their assessments of the relevant McGuffins as definitive. You can’t explain any of the ending events of FFIV as part of the prior set of rules for the first planet, since the inhabitants of the second planet created the whole situation. The second planet has all the answers, so the paradigm shift is unavoidable. And the central plot dynamic has to do with material expressions of spiritual states of being, as spoken by an authoritative second planet source, so the “power of love” trope is equally unavoidable.

Paradigm-shifting plot-twists can be pulled off in the late stages of the story but not if the player or reader has to accept too many radical breaks in consistency too quickly. If a plot-twist effects earlier plot mechanics, it has to somehow be addressed, or the reader or gamer feels like they’re trying to swallow something either sight-unseen or with incomplete information. Witness the timeline issues that are never brought up again (unless it happens in Interlude or After Years, in which case I will happily eat my words. Even if it does happen in those, though, the original game was presented as a standalone story for years sooo….those last two games must be taken as after-the-fact retcons).

As I explained in my last post, this is brought up by the appearance of airships and the lifespans of Cecil and Golbez. The same Lunarian introduced the airship technology and fathered both of those characters. This Lunarian is also the brother of Fusoya, our first friendly denizen of the moon, who is ancient- presumably thousands of years old. Not very many Lunarians are awake, so Fusoya and his brother are probably ancient caretakers of the planet.
Probably. The age of each brother is not specified but the rest of the story only leaves room for so many possibilities. If the two brothers are caretakers for the rest of the sleeping planet and one of them is canonically stated to be the caretaker since the era when the Tower of Babil was constructed…what about the second brother? On one hand, airship technology was only introduced in the recent past and there’s no reason to think that Cecil is any older than the other adult-ish(?) characters. On the other hand…we are told nothing about the background of Golbez, other than he has the same father as Cecil. Then there’s Mount Ordeals and the legend of the Paladin inscribed on the mythgraven blade, which the village of Mysidia has known about for time immemorial. When Cecil transforms into a Paladin and draws the mythgraven blade, he hears the voice of his father. Did Lunarian Number Two plant the mythgraven blade thousands of years ago? Apparently. So are both Lunarian brothers thousands of years old? What exactly caused Lunarian Number Two to go rogue and start doing his own thing on the Blue Planet in the last few decades?

The parentage of Cecil and all of these complications are introduced very quickly near the end of the game and are never addressed in the first game in the trilogy. The consequences that the plot-twist has for the plot so far are never addressed, which compromises the continuity. The paradigm shift with the Lunarian founder race and the elements of the “power of love” then start to be a bit of an eyesore.

There are other weaknesses in the story, but in my opinion this is the really big one. That being said, the thematic discussion of redemption holds up well. Between Cecil, Kain and Golbez there are three major character arcs that involve stark examples of absolution. Rydia’s reappearance from the Feymarch does a good job of bearing this up as well. When Cecil gets shipwrecked near Mysidia, he has every reason to think Rydia is dead, which renders his treachery to the village of Mist complete and snatches away his last shred of redemption in his own eyes. It’s a great way to set up the Paladin transformation, and when Rydia comes back it stops her from being another female character predictably sacrificed to develop a male one through tragedy. I also appreciated that Golbez elected to stay on the moon at the end of the game, as it echoes Cecil’s expiation arc. Despair is also examined hand in hand with redemption, which makes sense: redemption is transcendence, despair is being cut of from transcendence. Self-sacrifice or suicide can be ways of narratively exploring the link between the two and a ton of characters attempt to off themselves. The link and the mingled hope and despair implicit in it is even stated by one character after Cid appears to blow himself up: “Why do so many choose death so easily?”

There are other expressions of this a little further from the foreground. The four demonic guardians of the crystals (typically represented by the Four Fiends in older FF games) are now named after demons from the Inferno section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The last fight with them, with all four at once as a single being, even has a loose consistency with the deeper circles of Hell reserved for betrayers. In Inferno, people’s bodies frequently combine. In one canto, a scorpion stings one of the condemned souls, the soul turns to ash, then the ash swarms around the scorpion, absorbs it and turns into a hybrid. Obviously that has no bearing on the plot of FFIV, but it’s a way of keeping a relevant theme in the background. Then there’s Namingway constantly offering to change your name for you, which is rather on the nose.

If I really wanted to bog myself down in minutia, I could get into the thematic comparison between temporal and spatial world views. Theological concepts like salvation and damnation are typically part of a temporal cosmology where a grand timeline of the universe is privileged over local circumstances. In the worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of humanity, everywhere, all has a common destiny which involves salvation for some and damnation for others. Salvation and damnation seem to be consequences of the timeline’s eventual end. In spatial, cosmologies though, locations and nature are privileged over any possible timeline. Ancient pre-Christian belief systems in the West, for example, with deities embodying different natural forces. This is also exemplified by the reaction that both Vikings and some Native Americans had to Christian missionaries: they appreciated the Christian origin story as relevant to a certain group of humans…but fundamentally believed that different people originated in realms that are so different as to almost put them on the level of other planets or species. That different humans, like different non-humans, can be literally worlds apart. I imagine that some interpretation involving this is possible with this game, what with involving language of salvation and damnation combined with a world organized by four different elements. Which could possibly play into the thematic structure examining despair and redemption, side by side.

Maybe some of the writers and developers were thinking about things like that. Or maybe they were just reaching for different sources from religion and mythology which, as a fantasy writer myself, I understand is very fun to do just in and of itself. When I was in middle school a friend and I made our own table top game that was literally just a giant amalgam of mythology and religion. So no hate on that front. There’s at least enough suggestions of a temporal versus spatial thematic layer to raise the question, though.

As interested as I am in this kind of nutty interpretation, though, compelling thematic structures are not enough to create a good story in and of itself. In fact, I think this very disparity is something that Final Fantasy games historically have a messy relationship with. FFXIII is an even better case and point than IV, in both how it can go very right in one way and horribly wrong in another. I can only think of two, maybe three, Final Fantasy games that really got the balance right, and even the way in which the successes compare with the failures are interesting. Since I seem to be losing inhibitions with being a full tilt weeb, I’m sure I’ll write a longer post unpacking that even more eventually.

Final Fantasy IV binge, lore craziness, etc

I was too sick to go to work today and, while I was largely confined to the one room in which I was resting, I still managed to make the most of my stolen time.  I did more preparation for my imminent move and comfortably fielded my way through a job interview by phone (I rang off feeling rather good about it ^^).  Being quite ill, though, and not being up to much activity in general, I naturally sank a few hours into a gaming binge.

I know this probably doesn’t matter that much, but just in case anyone was wondering- last spring I thought I would have consistent access to a SNES on which to play the original FFIV, which I was totally stoked about since the 16 bit graphics and text-based  dialogue suited the game so much better than the upgrades on the DS remake.  Oh yeah, and the DS version had a few completely insane difficulty spikes.

In the end I ended up not being around the SNES all that much so I eventually ended up getting a digital copy on my Vita as part of the Final Fantasy IV: Complete Collection, which luckily turned out to be quite faithful to what I had seen on the 16 bit version until then.  Just a few graphical bells and whistles with some spells and summon monsters and some spruced up cut scenes, looking sorta like PS1 but perfectly good on the Vita’s smaller screen.  With said cut scenes, I like that they preserved a bit of the chibi aesthetic they seemed to be going for on the DS, which goes well with the high fantasy and occasional whimsy.  And the fact that it was kept to the cut scenes stopped it from effecting the tone of the overall story too much, which was for the best.

Anyway, since my first encounter with Golbez in the Dwarven Castle drove me completely bugsh!t I kinda didn’t do a damn thing for freaking ever but grind Rydia relentlessly until she learned bio…and still couldn’t stop sweating it.  Like…most sources I found said that bio deals non-elemental damage so Golbez shifting his weaknesses shouldn’t matter against it, but…but…is that, like, just the DS version?  In the original were there other complications that didn’t have to do with elemental weaknesses?  Is he just gonna incessantly deck anyone you try to revive with phoenix downs during a fight where you need to revive everyone except Rydia……????? X_X

Luckily, that fight turned out to be a complete push over this time around.  And whether this was a serendipitous sweet spot of the original or the product of Square observing it’s unfolding franchise over the years, the pacing of the incremental difficulty was pretty damn solid.  I haven’t finished it yet- I think I may be poised before the final battle?  Just finished off the Babil Giant and round 2 of the Archfiends?  -but so far I’ve never felt like I need to break off the main story progression in order to grind.  Part of that might have to do with the excessive grinding I did early on but it can’t be all of it.  I did, however, instantly want to drop everything as soon as I had the Falcon Airship and just hyperfocus on the Sylph Cave and the Passage of The Eidolons.  As soon as I found those two locations I knew I had found something that I’d been missing from most recent FF games.  Both of those (one of them more than the other) are crazy hard and optional and I totally couldn’t pry myself loose.  Part of it was that, as hard as the monster encounters were, they train you to think about prioritizing which character’s turn at what moment, which relates to one weakness.

Before this point there were a few awkward, mandatory battles where you could tell that the developers wanted that lesson to come through.  I’m thinking of the first time you fight each of the Archfiends.  In all fairness those really are simple rock-paper-scissor exercises.  Just try different elements until you find the weakness.  I don’t know if this is just my download or what, but I’ve never gotten the Libra spell to work when I needed it.  I know that some of the debuffs never work on bosses since they’d probably be game-breaking if you could just silence, toad, mini, hold or confuse whenever you wanted.  But all Libra is supposed to do is tell you their max HP, weaknesses and items they drop.  I mean…with a lot of FF games, finding the correct strategy for a boss fight usually isn’t what makes it hard, it’s actually implementing the strategy while making allowances for set backs (a character with a necessary job get’s KO’d, keeping buffs in working order, managing disposables, etc). With the first Archfiend fights, though, I felt like I spent more time coming up with strategies.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but for FF fans of my generation it’s a bit of a curve-ball.  But with the Sylph Cave, the Passage of The Eidolons and the fights with Asura and Leviathan, I feel like the trial and error process was smoother and more fun.

Before I move past this, though, I can’t help but notice that FFXIII and XIII-2 handled buffs and debuffs better than almost any other Final Fantasy I’ve played.  Reactions to the XIII games are divisive but I think the combat system is one of it’s unambiguous successes.  This gives me pause since, for so long, I simply didn’t notice how inept the Final Fantasy series had been with the finer points of RPG combat.

I think part of this could be chalked up to that fact that I got hooked on FF when I was young, particularly with V-X, and with my limited frame of reference as a child, surface level circumstances usually made enough sense on their own.  After all, it did make intuitive sense that debuffs would be handicapped or maybe altogether useless against most bosses- if they didn’t cap them in some way, the game would be too easy and the story’s tone and sense of proportion would be compromised.  I think that inference also caused me to hand-wave away any consideration of buffs or even character specific command options like steal, jump, etc during any time that’s not a random monster fight.

What that does, though, is condition you to think of the combat system as having two modes with two corresponding approaches: boss fights and not boss fights.  It really doesn’t get any finer than that, a lot of the time.  If there’s any circumstantial variation, it probably begins and ends with elemental weaknesses, with a few exceptions here and there to spice things up (killing Soulcage in IX with healing magic, keeping Ruby Weapon totally prostrate for the whole battle with Dazers in VII, etc).  However, the paradigm system in XIII makes it very convenient to use buffs and debuffs often- so often that there are a few characters that specialize in them.  XIII also had a cool elaboration on the limit break mechanic introduced in VII that tied into the paradigm system through the “ravager” function.  If you’re fighting a complete tank, you can have your party go largely on the defensive with “medics”, “synergists” and “saboteurs” buffing and debuffing while a “ravager” does middling but steady damage to build their limit gauge for a big devastating offensive every few turns.  What that means is that, even if you’re overwhelmed and the pacing of a battle only leaves a little bit of breathing room for decision making, you still learn to make the best of your smaller window and gradually you get better at spur of the moment decisions.  After playing FFXIII, the combat mechanics in the older games start to feel a little vanilla.

I don’t mean they’re utterly boring all the time- it’s just that once you’ve been made aware of the weaknesses through comparison, you really can’t unsee them.  While the combat system in FFIV doesn’t go much further than the likes of, oh, VI, VII and IX, it nonetheless distinguishes itself among the 90’s Final Fantasy games.

Theeennnnnn….there’s the story…when you look at the body of work of either a franchise or an individual content creator it’s always interesting when you can see ideas developing.  Like, when I saw Lynch’s Blue Velvet, it seemed obvious to me that it was an early draft of concepts that would later be fleshed out more in Twin Peaks.  If that doesn’t make me a horrible trog, then what about my reaction to the original Dark Souls when I thought it was a tepid, unsatisfying first draft of Bloodborne?

Anyway, FF recycles a handful of concepts often- pantheism, Gaia theory, evil empires, a first villain embodying institutional evils (nationalism, organized religion, etc) that turns out to be the pawn of a second more mysterious villain -but FFIV uses a few more specific ideas that are developed later on in FFIX.  Particularly, the alien invasion in a high fantasy setting.  Both IV and IX are science fiction stories disguised as fantasy stories.  If I wanted, I could take this in a whole other tangent about how FFXIII is a fantasy story disguised as a science fiction story, but I’ll resist that temptation (for now).

I mean…alien invasions…that’s basically what’s going on in both IV and IX.  One planet gets destroyed, the inhabitants are preserved in either a non-physical or dormant state, and its stewards attempt to terraform your home planet (I’m still cracked up by the fact that FF stories are usually set on planets called Terra that are being terraformed or, in some cases, your home planet is being terraformed by aliens from a different planet called Terra).

The differences between the portrayals of the sleeping aliens are interesting.  In IX (can’t help listing it first, I played it first 😛 ) the steward is a figure named Garland, a name recycled from the first FF game, who at times seriously appears to be a digital AI being.  Garland is not confined to any one physical body and, when he first appears, the story frames him in such a way that his presence is synonymous with the spaceship called The Invincible.  This could just be thematic nuance- the sight of Garland being thematically linked with the sinister mystery of The Invincible and the opaque origins of Kuja -but later we are tempted to think it may be more than that.

After Garland appears to be dead he telepathically communicates with Zidane while the party navigates Memoria.  IX also states, firmly, that none of the dormant Terrans have been decanted yet.  Neither Zidane nor Kuja are natal Terrans: both beings were created as war machines, to stop the cycle of death and rebirth, draining out the pre-existing souls via mist so they can be replaced with the Terran souls in Garland’s custody.  Even the genomes (is that a proper noun?  Genomes?) in the village of Bran Bal are meant to be empty vessels that the Terrans will be placed inside of.  Before we learn all this, all the other manifestations of the Terran presence are technology they left behind or deceptively presented by Kuja for the planetary natives to misuse.  And throughout the whole game we have Vivi wondering out loud if the fact that he rolled off of an assembly line makes his soul any less real than that of any other sentient being.

Vivi’s whole journey as a character is about whether or not your own subjective certainty of your existence has any bearing on your real existence.  Very Blade Runner.  And that wasn’t lost on my dad as he watched me play IX as a kid- he watched me go through the whole Terra \ Bran Bal segment and he kept calling the genomes Skin Jobs.  Even now, as I’m writing this, before I type “Terran” I have to check myself so I don’t type Skin Job.  Anyway, all of that taken with the fact that Garland exists in a form separate from his body seems to imply that he’s a creation like Zidane and Kuja, maybe that body isn’t even the real seat of his personality- it could just as easily be the Ilifa Tree or The Invincible.

In FFIV, the alien stewards are a pair of brothers who, unlike Garland, seem to be natal aliens (Lunarians this time, instead of Terrans).  How long these two have been awake, as well as the length of the Lunarian life span, is not clear.  Like IX, these aliens have technological doo dads that have been sitting around on the planet they’re trying to invade for millennia.  A race of people inhabiting the Eblan region seem to remember one of these knick knacks (the Tower of Babil) being there for their entire recorded history.  The two waking Lunarians were present and involved during the Tower’s construction- or at least they have knowledge of it that makes it look like they were.

They have a similar perspective on the function of the eight crystals on both respective planets, which could mean that even those have been created and planted by the Lunarians.  Lunarian Number Two went to Earth and introduced airship technology, Prometheus-style, and at the start of the game we get a cut scene explaining that airships appeared within recent history.  Perhaps the initial contact happened thousands of years ago and the pro-active meddling by the Lunarians is a recent event.  This ambiguity (did contact happen in distant or recent history) is harder to overlook once we learn that Cecil and Golbez are descended from Lunarian Number Two (yeah, the dude does have a name, but I’m trying not to bog you down in jargon).  Both Golbez and Cecil are referred to as his sons.  It’s not clear if this is figurative (in the sense that they’re descendants) or if Lunarian Number Two is literally their bio dad.  Cecil, at least, has a normal human life span and is like, 20-30’s, whenever twinkish bishi dudes are considered adults.  At the point in the game I’m in, it’s still not clear how long Golbez has been around.  It is said that he’s the older brother.  Maybe all this will be cleared up in just a few days of game play, idk just now.  The chronology seems vague so far, though.

Speaking of the alien stewards, I think it’s kinda neat that we get one of them as a playable party member for awhile.  It reminded me of getting Edea in the party near the end of VIII, or how when I was playing VII I kept thinking how cool it would be to get Sephiroth in your party outside of the flashback sequence.  Lunarian Number One doesn’t stick around very long, but it’s cool to have him during the time that you do, though.

About the playable characters, I also appreciate how you get a spectrum of different magic users throughout the game that demonstrate what the developing characters will eventually be capable of (Tellah, Palom, Porom, Lunarian Number One).  It makes it more satisfying when Rydia and Rosa start getting all of their respective black mage and white mage skills.  Also, the pacing of this story is so dang fast and so many characters appear to die so quickly that I don’t know what to think of the fact that four of the previously dead characters are now alive at the end.  In a different game it would either be tonal whiplash, gimmicky or both.  But this is a game with chibi sprites in a strip club, an underground continent of dwarves and a space ship that takes you to the moon and plot details unfolding a mile a minute so yeah.  Rapid fire character deaths and resurrections shouldn’t be that disruptive in the end.  Really, the whimsy combined with some of the more dramatic details gives this game a lot of it’s memorability.

Not that it doesn’t get stupid at times.  I wanted to yell at Cecil when he attempted to dismiss the females from the party before going to the moon.  I mean…it’s not necessarily sexist, since Cecil has a guilt complex a mile thick and watching Edge forgive Kain could have plucked one of his heart strings in a way that would make him want Rydia out of harms way (he feels responsible for her well being because of other plot details).  But, like, on the other hand…she’s a goddamn summoner.  And she totally saved everyone’s ass when they were about to get murdered by Golbez.  The girl is a goddamn tank and Cecil is pulling some gallant manly man shit and asking her and Rosa to sit out the final battle.  Thank god they didn’t listen.  Seriously, fuck you, Cecil.  At least in that moment.

Anyway, we’ll see how the closing chapters unfold.  So far so good, though.

Dune and Alejandro Jodorowski

“Here lies a toppled god-
His fall was not a small one.
We did but build his pedestal,
A narrow and a tall one.”
-Tleilaxu Epigram

 

Lately I’ve been getting ready for a move which naturally entails going through your stuff and deciding what to keep and what not to. One hard fact of life that I’ve had to come to terms with more and more over the years is that books take up a ton of space and, as we bibliophiles know, our collections get harder and harder to move over the years. Especially if you’re like me and you love having physical copies of things. I’m even like that with music and movies- I just have to have the actual object with it’s artwork and anything else that might be packaged with it. And so…I’ve had to make some very harsh calls with my own library. One thing I decided I needed to come to terms with is that I needed to get rid of most of my paperbacks, especially the long series- beautiful hard backs excluded (and even the paperback rule had it’s exceptions, such as my Sandman comics and my William S. Burroughs and Victor Hugo collections). Since I’m only keeping the real keepsakes (signed copy of Blood Communion…a rare and out of print collection of Hugo poetry from the sixties…assorted precious vintage stuff…), I’ve had to really invest in my tablet to get digital back ups. Inevitably, I had to make a decision about my six Dune books by Frank Herbert. Would they get the paperback pass of Burroughs, Aligheri, Hugo and Neil Gaiman? Possibly. And then last night I visited a friend of mine who showed me the documentary Jodorowski’s Dune, which made the decision that much harder to make.

At a certain point in the film, Jodorowski says that he had not actually read Dune at the time that he pitched it as his next film. Nonetheless, he made certain creative decisions that seemed to indicate at least some thoughtful familiarity with the book, wild departures from the text and all. I was also charmed by how philosophically optimistic his reading(?) of the story was. The Dune novels are, fundamentally, a meditation on power. Within all of it’s other layered explorations of language, ecology, religion, politics and psychology is the discussion of power dynamics within those things. Out of all of those permutations of control, institutional power is the most common touchstone in the plot of every book.

In all fairness, Alejandro Jodorowski has not been alone in his reversal of the tone of Dune. I have to jump on a large bandwagon here and say that I think the David Lynch adaptation to be a complete train wreck for many reasons (Jodorowski thinks that as well and says so at the end of the documentary). I’m also aware that Lynch’s adaptation was the victim of studio meddling but, whether this was the fault of Lynch or the studio heads, one of the most deeply egregious errors in that film was the ending, when Paul Atreides conjures water on Arrakis.

To say nothing of the fact that it flies in the face of how Dune discusses the relationship between humans and the ecosystems in which they live (Paul terraforms Salusa Secondus, the secret home planet of House Corrino and the Sardaukar, as a way of destroying the brutal survival ethos of the Sardaukar and crippling their military might), it also introduces a truly random genre break…or perhaps world break. No in-world explanation is furnished for Paul’s ability to conjure rain- it therefore stands to reason that he did it because he was magic. Why would he be magic? Evidently, because he’s the literal Messiah- the dude is literally Jesus. Which speaks to another thing every adaptation to date has overlooked- the Bene Gesserit are after power consolidation just like everyone else.

In a way, the Bene Gersserit are the contemporary heirs of the machine overlords overthrown by the Butlerian Jihad. In the distant, nearly mythic past of Dune, humans were enslaved by artificially intelligent machines. An Islamic cleric named Serena Butler led a revolution against them and, from that point on, the creation of AI was forbidden by every religion and government. What the Bene Gersserit are doing, with their breeding program and use of the spice to awaken ancestral memories in women, is to create a human supercomputer. In essence, they are attempting to make a creature to subjugate the world, the difference is that it’s a human being. Ergo, they are the heirs of the machine overlords. Paul does not play completely into their hands, but in the end he became what they wanted him to be. In a sense, Paul Atreides is part of the same “rise of the machines” trope as Victor Frankenstein’s creation or the machines in The Matrix. The text also makes it clear that the Bene Gesserit also frequently manipulate religions on the planets owned by the inter-galactic feudal lords. Interpreting Paul as a literal Messiah reflects an appallingly lazy reading. At least, in the case of David Lynch, it seemed appallingly lazy. There were just too many other lazy decisions in the film to accommodate any forgiving context for Lynch’s ending.

What makes me prepared to distinguish between the philosophical optimism of Lynch’s and Jodorowski’s visions is the consistency of Jodorowski’s handling of the tropes. It’s obvious at a glance that Dune analyzes and deconstructs the myth of the dying and returning fertility god in the form of Paul Atreides, even if he’s not presented as a genuine god (no such thing exists in the novels). Alejandro Jodorowski was willing to break the genre consistency at least to the point of making Dune science-fantasy rather than science-fiction (high science-fiction, though it is). Jodorowski’s Dune would end with the death of Paul Atreides at the hands of Thufir Hawat (the documentary didn’t get into the nuts and bolts of Thufir’s motivation but on it’s face I’d love to see that unpacked somewhere) which would complete the sacrifice for universal redemption, ala Jesus, Baldur, Cybele/Attis, Osiris/Horus, etc. This would necessarily make Jodorowski’s Dune a standalone film. David Lynch, meanwhile, wanted to adapt more of the books at some point.

I don’t know how Lynch would carry out his reversal with Paul being a literal divine being, but I don’t see it going well. This may seem like a fine point, but for me that matters because Jodorowski’s rendering, while wildly divergent, would only take enough from the source material to make itself complete- Lynch, on the other hand, wanted to carry his inversion further into the rest of the series. Alejandro Jodorowski doesn’t make any bones about having a huge ego in Jodorowski’s Dune, but I think keeping his adaptation as a standalone story demonstrates a certain confident reserve, as if his vision is complete in and of itself and can exist alongside Frank Herbert’s original story. The standalone version is also neat because it covers the scope of the mythic arc and nothing else, which was what Jodorowski was fundamentally interested in.

It’s the specificity of this focus that I think gives Jodorowski’s vision of Dune more credibility than the version of David Lynch’s movie that we ended up with. The archetypal nature is established early on with a scene invented entirely by Jodorowski, involving the immaculate conception of Paul. This version of Leto Atreides is a eunuch, castrated by a bull. Jessica, meanwhile, is a witch, who pricks his finger and turns his blood into semen, with which Paul was conceived. Later on, Leto is dismembered by Piter DeVries, Osiris style, with Jessica and Paul disappearing into exile and completing the mythic parallel. While complication can be messy, simplicity has it’s own challenges and can often be trickier. If you like rock or pop music, think of your favorite rock or pop song: a rock musician often only has three to four minutes with which to capture your attention. Direct riffs on mythology need a similarly deft handling, however simple or abstracted an archetype may appear. When I read Dune for the first time, it occurred to me that Frank Herbert was one such talented person, particularly during the scene where Leto dies from his suicide capsule. The haunting legacy of a father felt by a son is something we’ve seen many times in many different stories, and at that moment I realized I was believing it, that Herbert had succeeded in bringing it to life. Tolkien had a deft hand at this as well, but that’s a subject for another entry. This delicate familiarity with myth would have made an Alejandro Jodorowski Dune film a very compelling meeting of the minds. Jodorowski and Herbert would have meshed as perfectly as David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs had through the Naked Lunch film.

While it would have been a rich meeting between two scholars of religion and world history, Jodorowski’s different approach to the archetypes within Dune had a sharp contrast to Herbert’s. Along with the true nature of the Bene Gesserit and the fearful examination of power, Paul’s adherence to the arc of the tragic hero is also frequently overlooked. Tragic in the classical literary sense: the story is about a central weakness that eventually destroys the main character and turns him into a monster. Often, while reading the Dune novels, I was reminded of a line from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “Coriolanus has turned from a man to a dragon.” The first novel traces Paul’s journey as a young man vulnerable to manipulative forces beyond his awareness into a super-human theocratic precog. Over and over again he desperately searches for ways to escape the Jihad that he sees himself leading and ultimately succumbs to his own prophecy. Of all things, Paul Atreides frequently reminded me of Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Paul’s dread of this destiny is what gives the duel with Feyd-Rautha all of it’s dramatic weight- Feyd-Rautha’s death seals the confirmation of Paul’s worst nightmare and his ugliest transformation. It’s also hard to overlook the role that Paul’s firstborn son played in this: while his infant son was definitely killed, he had every reason to believe that both his son and his wife were dead for much of the ending. As far as he was concerned, he had lost his roots on Arrakis and had nothing left but revenge, which propelled him to the imperial throne and the Jihad. He was only reunited with Chani after this fatal step had already been taken.

Another part of Frank Herbert’s handling of mythic tropes is his tendency toward deconstruction. The Bene Gesserit knowingly manipulate religions across generations and Paul is frequently reminded of the fact that he is walking into an artificial prophecy that’s been designed as a step toward consolidating power. The Dune novels also frequently use lengthy internal monologues and in-world texts that reflect specific, in-world interpretations rather than objective facts. This is something that either lures the reader further into the book or turns them off. This is complicated by the fact that in Frank Herbert’s fictional universe information literally exists. Ancestral memories are past from generation to generation. Our perspective on Paul’s prophetic abilities also speak to this. Other than the generations of selective breeding before he was born, the essential ingredient in Paul’s psychic awakening was his mentat training. Mentat computation can happen in the blink of an eye and often subconsciously. This ability is even more powerful and even more subconscious in someone like Paul, who was bred to be a human supercomputer. Some of his prophecies are clearly the result of powerful, subconscious information processing that can only consciously express itself as apparent prophecy. This, however, does not account for how Paul and other precogs can receive specific fragments of sense perception, a sight or a sound, from the future. Evidently, the information exists out there to be grasped by precognitive minds. As the ancestral memory phenomenon tells us, one’s subjectivity exists objectively, but that doesn’t make it any less subjective.

I hope I’ve made it obvious that I don’t think that the version of Dune that Alejandro Jodorowski wanted to make would have been a cinematic equivalent of the first novel: merely that the deviations that Jodorowski planned on making revealed an interesting awareness and perspective on the book’s subject matter. Later in Jodorowski’s Dune we learn that many of the concepts from the film were recycled later on for Jodorowski’s comic series L’Incal, which I am now determined to read. Diverse interpretations are also an inevitable part of how a book continues to live on after it leaves the mind of it’s creator. Sometimes, by force of contrast, a different interpretation can create different readings of the book by people who encounter the original text after experiencing a derivative. While Jodorowski’s reading of the mythic tropes threaded within Dune were starkly different from Herbert’s own rendering, it is something of a natural sequential echo, as Frank Herbert himself was very much concerned with the nature of myths and their ripples throughout culture and history.