Secret Journey To Planet Serpo (book review)

If this were a novel, the subject matter under discussion would be the legacy of World War II. This discussion happens through post-war truth claims.

The narrative begins with ETs living beneath a Tibetan mountain range (The Green Men) making psychic contact with Japanese nationalists.

These Japanese telepaths are the Green Dragon group within the Black Dragon secret society, founded by Ryohei Uchida. Karl Haushofer earns the confidence of the Black Dragons and is allowed to share their privileged access to ET knowledge with Germany. This knowledge allows the Nazis to make contact with ETs based in a cave network on Earth called Patala. These ETs consist of a race of reptilians and the “grays” of modern UFOlogy lore. These ETs (mutual collaborators with the Green Men) supply the Nazis with advanced scientific knowledge. They also swell the numbers of the German infantry with clones.

The Nazis, having been given schematics for flying discs and ET weaponry, begin prototyping. They manage to involve experimental aircrafts in a limited number of dog fights but fail to bring the full force of this new technology to bear in time to prevent their defeat. They do, however, succeed in building an underground laboratory in Antarctica where the research and development of ET technology continues after WWII.

Len Kasten writes that the absence of ET tech during the majority of the war allowed organic human dynamics play out. In his assessment, the Axis method of autocratic control of numbers and firepower was outstripped by the innovation enabled by the diversity and free-thinking of the Allies.

The Allies become aware of the Nazi installation in Antarctica. Britain and America now realize that the Nazis could re-emerge with WMDs that make the nuke look like child’s play. So America jumps at the chance to get their own inside connection with ETs. As far as they know, it may be their only way to fight back in the event of a Nazi resurgence. This is the attitude of the American military and intelligence community when the 1940’s UFO crashes happen.

Before Roswell in 1947, a UFO with a crew of three crashed, leaving two dead and one injured. The survivor is cared for and housed at an isolated, commandeered facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. The survivor is designated, by his captors, as EBE1 (EBE being an abbreviation for extraterrestrial biological entity). This surviving crew member comes from the Zeta-Reticuli binary star system and is, in all likelihood, the kind of ET that people mean when they use the word “Zeta-Reticuli” as a race name (elsewhere abbreviated to “Zeta”). Betty and Barney Hill described these same beings, to name one example. Len Kasten writes that the military adopted the generalized phrase “Eben / Ebens” which is used throughout the book. Illustrations and implications suggest that Ebens are separate from the grays and reptilians mentioned earlier.

Communication with EBE1 is a long and experimental process, but eventually he explains how to send messages to his home world with the technology aboard his crashed vessel. With an eye toward leveling the playing field with the Axis bolt hole in Antarctica, the CIA uses EBE1 to negotiate a diplomatic relationship. This leads to an exchange program in which twelve American military representatives are sent to the ET’s home world, Serpo, in the Zeta Reticuli star system. One of them dies en route.

An Eben/Zeta representative is sent to Earth to assist the American military with reverse-engineering their technology. On Serpo, the American soldiers conduct the first off-planet cultural exchange in known history. They attempt to teach the Ebens the science of Earth with limited success. The civilization they encounter is one under the control of their military, which itself is governed by a secretive, elite group of Ebens. This elite limits all technology exclusively to a distinct group of scientific, medical and military professionals.

These elites and technocrats possess scientific knowledge far superior to that of Earth. Therefore only the laity of Serpo are interested in the science lessons of the Americans and most of them are confused by human concepts. Only a single student, from a remote cultural group to the north, manages to understand and appreciate these lessons.

The confusion of the average Eben civilian leads to a few speculations by the Americans: the Ebens in general are technologically superior to humans. Yet most of them either do not understand rudimentary science or are even interested in it. This discrepancy is an early hint of the rigid control of knowledge and culture maintained by the Eben elites.

The Ebens appear to be so extroverted and hardworking that they barely have room for personal pursuits of any kind. This extends to religion (of which there is only one) and career paths (which are assigned by the powers that be). The lone, earnest student is the closest thing the American team encounters to a free-thinker.

Eventually, the Americans ask the Ebens for the body of their crew mate that died on the way to Serpo. They are told that it is gone. After an intense confrontation, the Eben host and an Eben scientist do their best to show the Americans the remains that are left.

The two Ebens lead the American visitors to a genetic laboratory. In one section, there are preserved bodies of beings that the Ebens designate as “animals”- meaning they are alive but lack sentience or a soul. Ebens designate life forms that do possess a soul or sentience as “beings”, and they are experimented on in another section of the laboratory. The only remains of the deceased human have been used to create a cloned Eben-like being, which at the time exists in a somnolent, gestational state.

In the same area, the team is shown another genetic experiment, which is humanoid in appearance with a canine head. In other parts of the book, it is made clear that the four other races that the American secret service had interacted with were all created by the Ebens (not including the grays or reptilians). At other times, it is said that the Ebens “civilized” them. The historical military enemies of the Ebens are also classified as “animals”, without souls or sentience.

In a traditional novel, this would be a significant thematic beat.

Like humans, the Ebens also experienced a Great War that cast a long shadow over their history. This Great War could have created a bottle-neck of survival by conformity that lasted through the generations. Perhaps this has to do with the vast influence of the Eben military. Maybe their military enemies truly are not sentient. Maybe these opponents are self-replicating AI that isn’t sophisticated enough for sentience. With their mastery over genetic engineering, maybe the Ebens artificially resurrected societies that were wiped out.

Or maybe the Ebens are susceptible to all of the same evils that humanity is. Maybe the police state they live under has no better justification than a human police state. Like us, they do not believe that their enemies or chattel have “souls” because it makes them easier to kill and exploit. One of the four other races known to the American secret services, Archquloids, are described as “primitive” and “a form of slave.” Since the Archquloids are one of the races either “created” or “civilized” by the Ebens, those remarks take on a darker tone.

If this book was a novel, the motivations of America would be called into question. America sought a cultural and scientific exchange with ETs to level the playing field with the Nazis in Antarctica. Yet this first exchange with the Ebens (in addition to the actions of the reptilians and grays) raises the possibility that fascism is a universal status quo.

For the sake of clarity: I do not think that Len Kasten is a Nazi sympathizer or a crypto-fascist. His bias runs in the opposite direction. Early in the book, he compares the American exchange team to Christopher Columbus. If one were disposed to interpret this comparison charitably, we could dismiss it as hyperbole. Yet the comparison leaves out other historical realities, like Spanish trade routes.

This meditation on democracy versus fascism has interesting corollaries elsewhere in UFOlogy. Barney Hill used words like “red-headed Irishman” and “German Nazi” to describe the aliens he saw. At the time I heard about this, I assumed Barney Hill had not been literal. When asked about the meaning of “red-headed Irishman” he said that most Irish people he meets do not like black people (Barney was black and this was the early sixties in America). However, when he met a “nice Irishman”, Barney said he would think to himself “I will be nice.”

This at least sounds like Barney Hill was talking about how the beings made him feel rather than what they actually were.

Another corollary is an urban legend about President Eisenhower. It is alleged that he met with a group of individuals who urged him to dismantle the United States nuclear arsenal. In some versions, this was an altruistic attempt by planetary outsiders to council us against ruining our planet with nuclear weapons.

In other retellings, one of these human-like aliens bore an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler and referred to himself, simply, as a “man from nowhere.” In these versions, the strangers were hoping to subvert American military might by pressuring Eisenhower to dismantle America’s nukes.

This dialectic is even echoed in the Native American attitudes toward ancient alien theory. In the last few years ancient alien theory has been criticized, by South American political outlets, as racist. This is because advanced engineering in the ancient world is often interpreted as evidence of non-human involvement, which unfortunately dovetails with the colonial presumption of indigenous racial inferiority.

Just as many Native voices espouse the opposite, though. In the theological treatise God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, Vine Deloria Jr. insinuates that Abrahamic religion shares none of the hallmarks of animistic shamanism that were nearly universal before the rise of monotheism. Deloria opines that this could be evidence that monotheism is the legacy of non-human manipulation in the ancient history of humanity.

Other Native American voices, like Robert Morning Sky and the nu metal band Corporate Avenger, have treated the possibility of ancient aliens in America as a distinction rather than a weakness.

In Germany, the Nazi interest in the paranormal has made discussion of UFOs taboo by association.

The temptation to characterize aliens as supreme oppressors or supreme liberators reveals more about ourselves than anything else. The first impulse suggests a fear of cosmic indifference; that if the world is bigger than Earth then who knows what waits in the cosmic wilderness. The work of H.P. Lovecraft channeled this fear. The other impulse runs in the opposite direction; that all human ignorance will disappear under the guidance of benevolent non-human teachers.

The role of religious inheritance is also difficult to overlook. Monotheism has engendered a nearly global attachment to an androcentric worldview. If the monotheistic god is seen as a divine parent to humanity, the loss of the divine parent can be terrifying. Just like the oppressor/liberator dynamic, conjecture about alien life can assuage this fear just as easily as it can confirm it. Whatever else may be true about about ancient alien theory, it also accommodates the hope that scientific progress could bring back and redignify the ancient cosmologies it once refuted.

Before ending this entry I feel like I should clarify a few things. Like many abduction testimonials, the Betty and Barney Hill story relies on recovered memories. Considering the medical consensus that trauma suppression just doesn’t work like that, the Hill story has a credibility problem.

Deloria’s conclusion was reached using the ancient alien theories of Immanuel Velikovsky as a jumping off point. After subsequent criticism, Deloria explained why he applied ancient alien theory to the origins of monotheism. He had intended it as a satirical reflection of how non-Native academics are often trusted more on Native American history than indigenous people themselves.

I do not think you would be able to ascertain this from the tone of that portion of God Is Red. Deloria openly pokes fun a number of times in that book, but the chapter containing his speculations on ancient aliens is played very straight. And there is no subtext or perspective that would lead you to think that the even tone itself might be satirical. If it was meant as satire, I would not have known if I hadn’t learned about his later explanation.

At least in my reading of God Is Red, I don’t see any necessary conflict with anything else in that book (and I want to emphasize it is a very good book for its analysis of the religious climate of America). I do not think he would have compromised anything if he had claimed the title of an ancient alien theorist.

If there was no conceptual reason for him to distance himself from those words, there could have been another. Maybe he understood that the label of a believer in the existence of aliens is a hard one to break. Maybe he thought it would be used to undermine his reputation as a serious scholar. In any event, he did not seem particularly invested in ancient alien theory.

I have skirted a substantive analysis of the facts because my focus here was the psychological mechanism of belief. World War II casts a shadow over the narrative of Len Kasten. Whether this is a fabrication or something Kasten actually has knowledge of, many dynamics portrayed in Secret Journey To Planet Serpo can be traced to World War II. No matter how one reads this book, I think it’s reasonable to wonder about its discussions of fascism and liberty.

But I do not necessarily think the assenting opinions I gave as examples are credible ones. I chose them simply because of how they channeled what I think are interesting, repeating psychological themes.

Final Fantasy XV: Dawn of the Future (spoilers)

While this does not involve my dewy-eyed Noctis and Prompo ship, this book is definitely worth reading for a fan of Final Fantasy XV.

Like any entry in a multimedia story, there are two questions: does it stand on it’s own and what is it’s relationship with the rest of the material.

Simple answer to the first one is: mostly yes. Someone with no prior context would have questions, but the story that opens at the beginning is effectively closed at the end. It even keeps it concise: four stories, all about characters with close relationships (either personal or associative) with one another.

Each of the four stories has a neat simplicity of scope: each narrative rarely goes further than the perspective of a single character. Two protagonists, Ardyn and Noctis, have experiences that afford panoramic views of their home world Eos. While this works like broad-spectrum explication, it is still rooted in a specific character’s perspective. To the credit of author Jun Eishima, this complication is accommodated by the novel’s internal context.

Speaking of context- the answer to our second question is lopsided. The novel The Dawn of the Future contextualizes the rest of Final Fantasy XV better than the game contextualizes the book. The weakness on one side and the strength on the other both relate to the narrative use of alternate timelines.

Players of FFXV may remember that alternate timelines were suggested in Episode Ignis, at the end of the first DLC season. This suggestion was followed up at the end of Episode Ardyn, which was projected to be the beginning of a second DLC season.

Final Fantasy XV: The Dawn of the Future chronicles the story that the second season would have told. When read as a single frame story, divorced from the rest of FFXV, multiple timelines are a more central part of the story than in the base game. In retrospect, the rest of the expanded universe needs this book more than the book needs the expanded universe.

Obviously, this is a consequence of Square Enix canceling the second season of DLC. In the normal course of things, the “hint” from Episode Ignis would rise closer to the surface in Episode Ardyn. This would enable the multiple timelines to be revealed through a “slow burn” of DLC chapters spaced months apart.

Instead, whatever happened at Square Enix happened, and we now have a novel. Instead of the episodic format, the whole thing is wrapped up in a single book. There were small insinuations indicating time travel, like revisiting memories in a visionary state in the “post game” material. But the importance of manipulating timelines and the forces of destiny just isn’t talked about very much in the base game. For a reader concerned with continuity with the rest of FFXV, this can feel like a sudden change (even if Episode Ardyn and Ignis could potentially soften the blow).

As it’s own book, it works wonderfully. Then again this might be something of a haunting difficulty with the FFXV dev team. The film, Final Fantasy XV: Kingsglaive also had world-building that wasn’t present in the base game. Also like Dawn of the Future, the film Kingsglaive created a deeper world than the base game.

As I type this, it occurs to me that Kingsglaive may be a more intuitive next step for someone who appreciates this book rather than the game Final Fantasy XV. To be fair, though, a fan of Dawn of the Future would still find the game worth playing. Much of the book (particularly the stories of Lunafreya and Aranea) are set against backdrops of travel across great distances. Distances in both time and space are detailed in the stories of Noctis and Ardyn. Eishima writes vividly of the shifting landscapes and how relationships may grow and change on the road. The travel-centered gameplay of Final Fantasy XV and the chemistry of Noctis and his retainers would feel natural after Dawn of the Future.

Appropriately enough, the novel starts with an intense confrontation between Noctis and Ardyn. Our setting, Zegnautus Keep above the city of Gralea, has been reduced to an undead playground by Ardyn, whose demonic nature was not fully appreciated by his enablers until it was too late. Placing Ardyn and Noctis on opposite sides establishes the importance of their rivalry in the uniting frame story. The familial relationship and physical resemblance between Ardyn’s brother and Noctis makes this opening “flash forward” an appropriate set-up for the story of Ardyn’s human lifetime.

This early framing also sets up one of the distinguishing story developments of Dawn of the Future. This is a huge spoiler for the original game so consider yourself warned. And it’s something we’ve seen before in Final Fantasy. Once in IV and indirectly by association in X.

Those two games tell stories that experiment with redemption. A while ago, a friend and I were discussing what we saw as the lack of a coherent direction in the new Star Wars films. The prequels cover the fall of Anakin and the original series cover the rise of Luke. I said that the sequels don’t seem interested in continuing this theme.

This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker if it’s completely original material that can stand on its own and needs no contextual validation. It is a high qualitative bar to meet, but it is not impossible. Both of us agreed that the sequel movies did not meet it. But if one half is a “rise” story and the other half is a “fall” story, what would a thematically consistent third story consist of?

My friend said it should be a redemption story, containing both. This would introduce the pressure of balance. A “fallen” state at the beginning would have to be believable and substantial enough for this character to look like a tragic hero or a villain protagonist. At the same time, the “rising” process would also have to be believable.

The easy way to meet the first requirement would be to go hard on the evil. Something like Anakin butchering children in Revenge of The Sith. But that kind of obvious solution could paint you into a corner when you attempt the “credible redemption” later.

For the sake of covering our bases, let’s also own that you absolutely can go hard on both. The original Star Wars trilogy did, but mitigated the risk of audience expectation by only allowing Darth Vader to survive a few moments in his redeemed state. I have a lot of respect for George R.R. Martin for ignoring this fine line, just so current pop culture has at least one visible example of it. In Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, chopped off a child’s head in the first book simply because he was ordered to. But after a few books, he is clearly portrayed with sympathy.

I’ve wondered if this was something that made the creators of the TV show anxious. Perhaps this was the reason they decided to portray Jamie and Cersei Lannister with more darkness, so a casual viewer wouldn’t feel too deprived of morally laundered sadism.

Final Fantasy IV and X explored different expressions of these extremes. With X this is a little less obvious but an experiment is still at work: Jecht’s human failings as a father and a bully are always in the foreground. Jecht’s role as the human vessel for the being Sin is revealed afterward. In one of our first glimpses of Tidus, venting his fury to his mother, he is told that if he never sees his father again he will never have the chance to tell him how much he hates him. Before the final battle, Tidus does tell him. In the mind of Tidus, the human failings of Jecht haunt him more than Jecht turning into a supernatural, apocalyptic monster. If Jecht is damned, it is because of what he did before he transformed.

Final Fantasy IV does not defy the expectation of reconciliation, but exceeds expectations with reconciliation. Golbez, it is revealed, was fathered by the same alien that fathered Cecil. Before that moment, Golbez committed a series of atrocities that would have been at home in one of the first two world wars. The depth of suffering Golbez has engineered cannot be avoided, since Cecil has to go through a painful expiation process because of something he did under Golbez’ authority. At the end of the game, we learn that Golbez was effectively “possessed” when he did those things.

This is weird because the expiation of Cecil has already shown us that “the devil made me do it” is no excuse. Cecil had to personally face the survivors of his victims, endure their hatred and nearly pay with his life. Cecil had doubts about Golbez when he delivered the “ring” to Mysidia and he wasn’t even aware that the “ring” carried a nuke-level destructive spell. Cecil is morally evaluated strictly according to the outward consequences of his actions, with no attention paid to his thoughts and intentions.

It is possible that this expiation may have been intended to soften the player toward Golbez. But a casual player could not be faulted for wondering if Golbez’ last minute redemption is a bit of a double-standard.

Final Fantasy XV: Dawn of the Future explores similar moral extremes. Is there anything like Final Fantasy IV’s inconsistency that might get in the way? No, but the simplicity of the experiment itself creates its own questions.

This novel plays it straight. You know how I used the words “undead playground” earlier? This ain’t news to anyone who played the game but Ardyn basically had ten years to kill the majority of people on Eos and turn them into daemons. Another one of the viewpoint characters, Lunafreya, was herself killed by Ardyn before she is resurrected at the beginning of Dawn of the Future.

Lunafreya is also the first major character in the book to solicit Ardyn’s assistance. The apparent forgiveness of a viewpoint character who once died by his hand helps establish Ardyn’s positive arc before the last story, The Final Glaive.

Some of the best moments in the whole book are in this story. The first paragraph on the page above engages the philosophical dimensions of this story directly. The two female perspective stories are about road trips and the two male perspective stories feature long, visionary or altered state segments.

With this kind of thematic division, there is one half with people literally doing things. The other half needs to be written in a way that holds its own by contrast or comparison. Ardyn’s story features an eventful flashback and a brief period of action and travel to an ethereal plane.

The beginning of The Final Glaive starts the contrast in the right way. There is an exchange between the physical travel of the female protagonists and the astral travel of the male protagonists. Both place experience front and center, which is all that lasts between transient states. This lends gravity to the early meditations of Noctis during his ten year slumber within the Crystal.

Noctis does not immediately let go of the hatred that Ardyn provoked. At the same time, the simple existence of innumerable lifetimes conveying innumerable experiences is marked by Noctis within the Crystal. If each subjectivity is at least a little bit “objectively real”, than thoughts and emotions are empowered. If subjectivity is accepted as “real” then an internal process- like the changing of Ardyn’s heart -is empowered.

This is a careful attempt to substantiate Ardyn’s positive character arc. In the context of the novel, it works. But since I’ve played FFXV, it is hard for me to reconcile this with what I felt was a relative disinterest in narrative continuity in the base game.

Absent narrative continuity has haunted the FFXV project for years. It’s the reason why I never bought the thematic comparison between Ardyn and Kefka that appear throughout FFXV. It’s why I found the visionary afterlife in FFXV with the reunion of Luna and Noctis so unbelievable. We see Noctis go from a boy to a man and learn the wisdom of acceptance in the face of disaster, only to find his ultimate refuge in a fantasy of a woman he met briefly in childhood with whom he corresponded from a distance.

I’ve belabored the pointlessness of the Ardyn-Kefka analogies enough already, but do we need to drag Dancing Mad into it to, now?

I emphasize that the narrative treatment of Lunafreya within The Dawn of the Future is satisfying. In fact, she and Aranea probably have a few of the more entertaining moments in the book even if The Final Glaive is my favorite. Giving Luna both depth and a spine was sorely needed. The appearance of a new character, Sol, in three of the stories also builds up the continuity of the book. But it would have been nice to have something like this in the base game.

And here we are, back with the problem of a part of a story building the world better than the whole, like the Kingsglaive film. As a stand-alone “frame story”, this book carries its own weight just fine. But in the bigger FFXV multimedia project, it’s hard not to think something like “Why can’t all the good ideas make it into one specific story?”

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (spoiler review)

On its own, this can be read as a loose frame story. Several interconnected, short story-like blurbs take turns in the foreground until the mysterious occasion for the FBI investigation begins to take shape. Each vignette is relayed by Tamara Preston, a fictional FBI field agent, belonging to the Blue Rose task force from Twin Peaks lore.

Then again, if you have any familiarity with Twin Peaks at all, it’s hard not to think of this book as a puzzle piece belonging with both T.V. runs and Fire Walk With Me. Especially since this is a story that David Lynch has treated protectively at times. To hear him tell it in every interview with him I’ve ever seen or read, Lynch is a visual artist first. He was a painter before a filmmaker, after all. At times, he considers story a rich ingredient in an overall work of art- but not necessarily the point on it’s own.

And when story does reach a critical level, he perceives opportunities within tangents that may be more rewarding than whatever the apparent McGuffin might be. To great effect, in my opinion: Mulholland Drive, Fire Walk With Me, Eraserhead and Lost Highway are some of my favorite movies. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Lynch cares more about mental and emotional continuity than a literal cause-and-effect unfolding of events.

During the first season of Twin Peaks, both David Lynch and Mark Frost (author of The Final Dossier and most Twin Peaks screenplays) were committed to this flexibility. Both Frost and Lynch agreed that the identity of Laura Palmer’s murderer might not even be revealed, if the right stories were generated in the process. When the studio required that the murder be solved in the second season, Lynch appeared to be so dismayed as to nearly loose interest in Twin Peaks.

As much of a blow as this was, though, Lynch still had not let go of his attachment. In the mid 2000’s, a DVD re-release of the series was planned to include a comic written by a third party that would pick up where the mysterious ending of the second season left off. Lynch would not allow it to be released.

For someone who believes that numerous and diverse interpretations are proof of success…this seems like a relatively protective attitude. Especially after the studio meddling nearly killed his interest in Twin Peaks in the early nineties.

Mark Frost was half of the creative force behind the original story, which may be why he has been allowed to create a canonical Twin Peaks novel. I’m aware of some other Twin Peaks prose fiction and audio books released in the early nineties, but this book was released almost simultaneously with the 2017 Return series which strikes me as significant. In fact, the multiple links that the Final Dossier has to The Return strongly suggest that this book may be a companion piece to the 2017 continuation.

The Final Dossier bridges some very specific gaps between the early nineties Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: The Return and Fire Walk With Me, such as the parentage of Audrey’s son and the role of Philip Jeffries.

The portrayals of Lawrence Jacoby and Ben Horne surprised me with how sympathetic they were. During the first two T.V. seasons, I was absolutely disgusted with Jacoby. The overal tone of the show seemed to insinuate that regularly crossing sexual boundaries with young female patients was just more quirkiness. No worse than the jokes about Deputy Brennan tossing cups of sperm across the lobby of the sheriff’s office.

Both Jacoby and Ben Horne have redemption arcs that are pretty easy to believe. For a story about the virtues and vices of small towns, keeping things realistic and simple go a long way (especially if there are things that are complex and otherworldly elsewhere in the story). In the case of both characters, personal revelation is only half the battle. A penitent must also live with the uncertainty that the world (and those you have wronged) has no obligation to acknowledge growth or repentance.

Ben has a pretty dismal experience with this. He basically agrees to an amicable separation from his wife, who wants no reconciliation. His son, Johnny, is dependent on her so Ben is effectively cut off from his son in the bargain. After what she has had to tolerate in her marriage, though, Ben seems to have accepted that fair is fair. Similarly, Audrey Horne, his daughter, wants absolutely nothing to do with him for every good reason a viewer of the show can think of. While making what reparations he can in his professional life has no hope of repairing any relationship, that seems to be beside the point for Ben.

Jacoby…basically loses his license for having no grasp on doctor-patient confidentiality and plying patients for sex on the reg. Pretty much what I was hoping would happen during all of the first two seasons. He then begins a tour under a Nordic New Age Guru, dabbles in being a psychonaut and does some progressive politics boosting. After this sabbatical, he returns to the town of Twin Peaks due to a friendship in the Horne family and stays for his own reasons.

He reinvents himself as Doctor Amp, a broadly anti-establishment podcaster, which has an unexpectedly therapeutic impact on Nadine Hurley. In The Final Dossier, this comes across as similar to Ben’s late stage withdrawal from white collar crime: Jacoby maintains an open forum where he could, potentially, do some good but obviously will never practice medicine again.

If The Final Dossier was the last word on the subject, this would be a perfectly acceptable way to wrap up his character arc. But Twin Peaks: The Return portrays his Doctor Amp persona as a little less benign and more rambling and explosive. When The Return first aired, I wondered if Jacoby’s alter-ego was perhaps modeled after someone like Alex Jones. I’m not saying there was anything narratively wrong with that, but there is a tone conflict between the two versions of podcaster Jacoby.

Agent Preston’s investigation has a wide scope but there are repeating patterns between the vignettes that make the focus of the story clear.

To the book’s credit, Tamara Preston’s character development is one of the things that makes The Final Dossier a little bit more than a companion to The Return. While this is easy to miss in the beginning, by the end of the book it’s obvious that Preston has been in the town of Twin Peaks for awhile. Picking up exactly where The Return left off, Tamara is doing a follow up investigation of the mysterious shootout in the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s office in 2017.

Tamara has a “writer’s presence” that places her very close to the foreground. Between the multiple reports on people and events, though, some names come up more often than others. Special Agent Dale Cooper, in particular, could be reasonably interpreted as a secondary protagonist to Tamara’s primary protagonist.

Tamara passively observes that Dale has a white knight complex, during her report on Windom Earle’s crime spree. She theorizes that his mentally troubled mother may have parentified him as a child and engendered a reflexive urge to protect vulnerable women. Later in life, when Cooper falls in love with Caroline Earle during Windom’s downward spiral, a psychological lure is planted.

This draws Cooper in and leaves him vulnerable when Windom shows up in Twin Peaks. This is the same occasion that creates Cooper’s double, while the man himself is outside of time and space for (what we experience as) twenty five years in the Black Lodge.

Tamara goes on to infer (like many Twin Peaks fans) that the seemingly random time differential between entering and exiting the Black Lodge is a consequence of its location outside of time and space. This would be consistent with the eventual fate of Philip Jefferies who, when he materializes in Fire Walk With Me, is disoriented and demanding to know what year it is. This is also covered in The Final Dossier, as is Jeffries shock at seeing Dale Cooper. He points at Cooper drunkenly and asks Cole “Who do you think that is, there?”

If Jeffries is on guard against someone who looks like Cooper…and Cooper himself has a malevolent doppelgänger known to travel across time and space…it’s not difficult to run into the possibility that Cooper’s double and Jeffries somehow crossed paths on the other side.

Tamara’s final analysis accepts two things as likely. First: there are multiple doorways to the region outside of the space-time continuum and the time differential between here and there is nearly random. Second: something happened between Dale’s “evil twin” and Jeffries somewhere on the other side.

What exactly that is is not obvious. Clearly stating that this meeting happened at all would have been more welcome within The Return. This book also states the link between the New Mexico nuclear weapon experiments, Sarah Palmer and The Dutchman’s Lodge more openly than The Return. Again, which The Return should have done to begin with. In all fairness, it’s not like you couldn’t piece it together on your own, but probably only with the help of secondary sources that are less likely to be available these days. A bare minimum requirement would be knowing Sarah Palmer’s age and the state in which she spent her childhood. To make matters more confusing, she only lived in New Mexico as a child but was born in Bellevue, Washington- I remember that last part causing a lot of fans on YouTube to dismiss the possibility that the little girl at the end of the “crispy ghosts” episode was Sarah Palmer. Just now, I only know she was close enough to the nuclear weapon tests as a kid because I read it in a book by Mark Frost from 2017. A lot of secondary sources available to fans only stated where she was born, not the rest of her life leading up to marrying Leland and giving birth to Laura.

Which leads us back to whether or not The Final Dossier is an addendum to the T.V. show. Obviously, you’ll get more out of it if you were a Twin Peaks fan beforehand. Whether or not this is a problem depends on your opinion of multimedia storytelling or world building. In the case of Kingdom Hearts, the fanbase seemed to call bullshit with a single voice, causing Square to re-release the handheld KH games numerous times on multiple platforms just to make sure everyone was on the same page before they went ahead and released KH3.

A case could be made that the success or failure of multimedia storytelling depends on the specific story. Both Twin Peaks fans and David Lynch fans in general love hunting down rare minutia, so maybe a book that is equally necessary, side by side with the movie and two T.V. shows, is admissible here. Multimedia storytelling also depends heavily on whether or not the individual pieces are complete on their own in spite of their links to each other. The fictional universe of Stephen King, for example, is expressed largely through individual, standalone stories, with the exception of the Dark Tower novels. When I first discovered Stephen King message boards as a teenager, a lot of us seemed to be interested in the bigger multiverse threads because we were hooked by a specific part, like It, The Stand or The Dark Tower.

I bring all this up after mentioning the Sarah-Nuke-Dutchman-Jeffries-Double link because the episode that deals with it most directly feels like brief exit from the overall continuity.

This, of course, is the episode with the crispy ghosts. Most of the episode has no dialogue and there is no obvious sequential link with anything else in the story up until that point. There is surreal imagery associated with both BOB and Laura that makes it look like some kind of Lord of The Rings / Final Fantasy battle between good and evil was turned loose by the 1943 Los Alamos nuke experiments. And that this spiritual battle is waged, somehow, by Laura and BOB.

Twin Peaks, at this point, has been through a few radical genre shifts already: first stage was noir balanced with slice-of-life Americana. The second was a little closer to something like The X-Files with supernatural activity taking up more of the foreground. Fire Walk With Me, my favorite part of the Twin Peaks story, brings the subject into more psychological and spiritual territory. This, for me, put the emotional center of Twin Peaks (Laura Palmer herself) in the foreground where she belongs. By linking the metaphysical imagery from the show thus far directly to Laura’s psyche, Fire Walk With Me becomes (for me) the most compelling part of Twin Peaks.

Then…the episode with the crispy ghosts brings the story into something like high fantasy.

This can only be reconciled with the rest of the story by Laura inheriting something from her mother, Sarah, who in turn may have been exposed by the crispy ghosts who emerged after the nuclear blast. A story link from that distance would even go with the broader range of locations used in The Return. It bounces between Twin Peaks, the Dakotas, Las Vegas and New York City. A brief digression to the 40’s would fit within that spectrum of variance as well, so long as the link to the rest of the story was clear.

So while that link can be discerned with effort in The Return, I think it could have been done better. With those weaknesses out of the way…the link from the nuke to Sarah to Laura gives deeper credibility to Cooper’s journey back in time at the end of The Return to prevent Laura’s death.

I mentioned earlier that The Final Dossier slowly makes it clear that Tamara Preston has been in the town of Twin Peaks after the events of The Return. Reason one for this is just to follow up on the confrontation in the sheriff’s station. Which was definitely weird enough to require follow up research. Reason two is that, according to everyone in Twin Peaks and all relevant documentation, Laura Palmer never died but disappeared. Tamara found this out incidentally and is of course shitting bricks and trying to get Gordon or someone else with the Blue Rose task force to give a second opinion.

This could lead to another application of multimedia storytelling that the overall Twin Peaks body of work may have been more successful at: each fragment informing the others. The Final Dossier informs The Return with the nature of Sarah Palmer’s link to the crispy ghosts. The Return informs The Final Dossier with how exactly Laura’s murder was retroactively undone. Reading The Final Dossier also sheds a lot of light on Sarah Palmer’s behavior in The Return and introduces the possibility that she’s expressing a kind of “Mandela effect” freakiness.

Being a depressed alcoholic would have made just as much sense in the original continuity, but The Final Dossier states explicitly that she suffered from depression and alcoholism in the continuity in which Laura disappears, rather than dies. If she’s channeling some part of the emerging “new” timeline next door, it could inform the scenes in The Return in which she appears posessed: whatever she passed onto Laura which was then harvested by BOB (within her father) never could have made it to BOB. If BOB never killed Laura and extracted whatever it was he wanted from her, perhaps Laura is still carrying it around…or maybe it somehow stayed with Sarah. Which would explain why she sometimes turns into an interdimensional monster (?).

If you enjoy these kinds of Easter Egg hunts like I do, than I one-hundred percent recommend this book.

Lying by Sam Harris (by a beleaguered “fan”)

There are certain Sam Harris books that I think are worth reading in spite of his willingness to kiss the conservative ring.

Since Harris did away with his fig-leaf disguise of neutrality through his embrace of Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray, I have largely stopped following him. I therefore don’t know if his loyalty to the right has been expressed in print.

(And yes I’m aware that Harris had substantial disagreements with Peterson- read the very first post of this blog if you want my breakdown on that)

If not, then his bibliography may allow posterity to remember him at his best rather than his worst. A look at his writing reveals him to be a succinct, accessible and subtly brilliant philosopher. Sam Harris had an early bite at the atheist hipster apple when he wrote The End of Faith, which put him in the same company as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For awhile after that, though, Harris was less interested in fad-chasing than Dawkins or Hitchens: his best work was either completely divorced from atheism or only peripherally concerned with it.

This is one of them. It is almost as small as Free Will, even though Free Will is the bigger bombshell and arguably more important (my favorite Sam Harris book is Waking Up). The subject of lies might strike some readers as so prosaic or universal as to be too bland to write about. What I took from it, though, was an essential critique of the most common reasons for common lies, which adds up to its own kind of bombshell.

One weakness of this book, however, is that it is written from a perspective of good intentions. A central message is that to tell “white lies”, to spare someone’s feelings, avoid harsh truths or to spare your own nerves, is to infringe on the autonomy of another.

Illustrating examples in the book include infidelity and secrecy around health care. Person X is being cheated on by their spouse and it’s an open secret where they work. Person X does not know, but no co-worker will tell Person X that it is happening: their co-workers assume that either Person X must already know and, if not, it’s not their place to reveal it to them. It is uncomfortable, and if Person X gets a divorce as a result, the snitch may feel as if they made Person X worse off. The co-workers, then, have made a decision that their personal comfort and the apparent “bliss” of Person X’s “ignorance” is a good enough reason for Person X not to know.

Another example, offered by a reader and used by Harris with their permission, involves a middle aged woman with MS. This event took place before women were trusted by doctors with their own health care and would often share urgent information with husbands first, believing that a woman would take the news better from her spouse. In this story, the doctor tells her husband that the MS has spread too far for medical intervention. The husband, therefore, decided not to tell her that she has MS, because he believed that her final days should be as comfortable as possible and that she shouldn’t be bothered by worrying about a problem that cannot be solved.

The woman, meanwhile, figured out she was terminally ill on her own and refused to tell her husband because she wanted to spare his feelings. Both wife and husband are now suffering in silence and isolation. Later, during a family doctor visit, the doctor casually mentioned the MS, believing everyone is up to speed. The couple’s adult son is with them and he had no idea. Their son learns from his parents that they both knew but actually kept it from each other and chose not to tell him for the same reason: to spare feelings.

In both examples, secrets are kept from the people they directly involve in order to spare their feelings and the discomfort of a difficult conversation. The avoidance of “harsh” truths, then, can at worst allow a person’s life to crumble without their notice or, at best, force the involved parties to suffer in isolation when they could have had the support and understanding of each other.

If something bad is happening to someone without their knowledge, to keep it from them is to make their decision for them: that you know more about what is best for them than they do. If subverting the autonomy of another person is too abstract for you to care about, then what is unavoidably tangible is that you are either closing off avenues of support or causing them to be surprised by tragedy.

Another common motivator for avoiding difficult problems with others is the possibility that they will not believe you or accuse you of sadistically lying. If one avoids it due to this fear, you have not even given the person the chance to either agree or disagree.

In order for this assessment to be true, the observations of others would need to be genuine, or at least honest. Harris addresses this, saying that,while honesty may frequently turn out to be more practical if less comfortable, it is still possible that someone may be mistaken about a harsh truth. The book offers an implicit rebuttal to this: to not broach a possibility is to cop out of finding out if you are right or wrong. Which is worse: embarrassing yourself by being wrong or allow someone to suffer if you are right? Does your pride matter more or less then the well-being of another?

While I cannot disagree with these answers to the risk of being wrong, I believe Harris sold short the vast influence of this fear. I apologize for being anecdotal here, but a lot of the worst examples of secret-keeping and rumor-mongering are done because of how convinced we are of the facts and of our own altruistic intentions. This can, arguably, be refuted by Harris’s remarks about how people avoid verbal confrontation because they want to spare their own comfort and the feelings of others. Yet I think people’s certainty of their own perceptions can do just as much harm as good. It is, admittedly, a two-sided coin and it is easy to discuss the role of good intentions in passive dishonesty while overlooking the role of good intentions in active dishonesty.

This fine point comes up again when Harris makes another, related claim: that to commit to rigid honesty is to live without calculation or the pressure to “keep a story straight”. More specifically, he writes that “the world” itself can become “your memory”. This can, in effect, turn out to be true in practice, but the opposite is just as probable. After the age of eighteen, I realized that my grasp on the chronology of my life was growing less perfect by the year. Almost everyone I know describes the same thing- the longer you live, the harder it is to remember fine points about events that are spaced between more colorful memories.

One psychological possibility is that less things of personal interest happen in adulthood compared to childhood, so in the long run we don’t feel the need to retain as much. Whatever the reason, though, even with the intention of being honest, it’s still possible to misremember or confabulate.

Let’s recap the weaknesses: can one spread destructive falsehoods and compromise relationships because of a sincerely-meant misunderstanding? Yes. Does Harris adequately address it? He does so admissibly, if not perfectly. Do I have any unambiguous disagreements? Only with Harris’s claim that committing to honesty in all things removes the pressure to maintain a timeline and that the “facts” will always back you up. That point is not central to the book, though.

However, the resonance this book had with me was because of some personal experiences of my own, which involved a conclusion that would have been at home in a book like Lying. Victor Hugo has influenced me more than any other writer because he got me to think of the consequences of human behavior, however subtle, as things that one is ethically responsible for. Are we in control of the layers of cause and effect that emanate from our decisions? Not on the level of direct authorship. Nor does it make sense to act like every consequential ripple is something you knowingly did.

But novels like Les Miserables, Quatrevingt-treize and L’homme qui rit are written with clear moral and spiritual sympathies and portrays the struggles of their characters in terms of their social meaning, either contrasting or complimenting the original psychological origins of a given act. This complimenting and contrasting relationship between society and the psychological origin of behavior had a profound impact on me. It seemed to invest the moment to moment ethical and practical calculations of ordinary people with the import of nearly mythic struggles, as if the currents of history are running just beneath the surface of our minds.

After my first reading of Les Miserables, I was never the same. I was, and remain, unable to contemplate any position I hold or act I might commit without considering every possible ramification and whether or not I am comfortable being the author of those ramifications.

This has led me to behave in ways that others have found strange. Like when my dad adopted a litter of cats to help out with a rodent infestation. The cats began hunting as soon as they were mature enough and our mouse problem vanished. A friend of mine told me to tell my dad to get the cats’ bells for their collars. They said that the cats could still hunt mice with bells because their ears won’t pick up the ring, but that song birds would be warned by it. Because, he said, birds make pretty sounds and look nice and shouldn’t be killed. I refused to relay the message because it seemed like an unethical way to treat the cats: the cats were adopted because they would hunt. The cats were desirable because of their cat behavior: it would therefore be wrong to punish the cats simply for following their nature. This friend has never stopped giving me crap about my “strangely serious” attachment to inter-species morality.

Victor Hugo’s influence on how I thought of ethical responsibility caused me to interrogate any action before carrying it out. I felt compelled to match what I wanted to be responsible for with what I am, in fact, responsible for. Not only does honesty make us more considerate of the autonomy of other people, but it also makes your own personal assessments of what you believe and the kind of person you want to be more rigorous and accurate. One may be afraid to be honest for fear of being wrong, but honesty can also train your mind so you are less likely to be wrong.

It Chapter Two review

Over the weekend I saw It Chapter Two with my significant other and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Like many of us, I remember the made-for-TV movie starring Tim Curry very fondly but there’s no getting around the fact that it mishandled the novel’s ending. In all fairness, the novel does have famously challenging ending, but the dialogue and animatronics in the early adaptation are just terrible.

While Tim Curry’s performance was truly creepy and convincing and was an undeniable strength, I don’t think Curry could carry the whole weight of the film himself. So as a fan of the book (my favorite King story after The Dark Tower novels) I’m just very happy that there is now an adaptation that treats the source material with reverence while maintaining its own strength as a film.

I realize that not everyone perceives this balance. Negative reviews typically state that the film was too long and packed with too much meandering minutia. I, however, was very pleasantly surprised with the streamlined pacing and editing.

It is a book that regularly moves back and fourth between the events of 1957 and 1984 so, since the two recent films cover the events chronologically in separate halves, a lot of structural re-interpretation is necessary.

One thing that might strike a fan of the novel as odd is that the beginning of the second film feels very much like the earlier chapters of the book with Mike Hanlon making his phone calls to the other Losers.

All of these chapters have somewhat long digressions that paint vivid pictures of the Losers as adults before getting to the phone call and it’s consequences. In It Chapter Two, each one moves very quickly and we find ourselves at the meeting at the Chinese restaurant in short order. At this point I was actually starting to worry that the film might be awkwardly short, which luckily isn’t true.

A necessary part of these structural changes is that the scenes must serve different structural functions than they did in the novel. In the book, we don’t get the restaurant scene until the middle after we’ve had several very long and dramatic 1957 flashbacks. As a middle chapter featuring the reunion of the main characters, it does the job of tying together several plot lines and giving the reader a sense of overall perspective over the sprawling events that have happened so far.

In It Chapter Two, the restaurant is continuing the introduction of the adult Losers, giving the audience time to get to know them before proceeding with the story proper. As far as the audience is concerned, the adult Losers are new characters they need to be acclimated to.

While we’re on the subject of the restaurant scene, the fortune cookie apparitions were vastly improved over how they were presented in the original novel (this film actually improves on a few different things that King handled awkwardly which we’ll definitely be getting to).

Each cookie has a separate part of a message that the surviving male Losers are struggling to put together while Beverly is becoming frantic listening to them argue. Beverly is actually our affective anchor in this scene- pretty much the viewpoint character. The tension of the hysterical arguing builds quickly and then stops to breathe before the monsters in the broken cookie shells hatch. Absolutely delicious pacing.

This is also our first glimpse of another way in which It Chapter Two improves in its source material: Beverly as an adult is handled far better than in King’s novel.

The uneven way that Beverly is written in the book is particularly annoying to me since she starts off on such a strongly sympathetic and memorable note. Her vulnerability is expressed differently from the other male characters for both overt and understated reasons. Beverly’s personality contrasts with the rest of the Losers in the role her father plays in her fears and anxieties. Most of the Losers’ have fears that are deeply impacted by their parents except, perhaps, Richie (and his dad still seems frazzled from his energy level).

Ben’s mother dismisses his emotional needs by playing to his emotional eating, Eddie’s mother has Münchausen syndrome and has convinced him that he has imaginary illnesses, Bill’s parents blame him implicitly for the death of his brother and Mike is dogged by his father’s feud with Butch Bowers.

Beverly, meanwhile, has an alcoholic father that works long hours and sexual abuse is implied. She comes and goes from home as she will since her father is often either absent or indisposed.

In modern terms, she’s a latch key kid. So while she lives in fear of her father and his unpredictable violent outbursts, she has nonetheless experienced more independence than the rest of the Losers and is better at spur of the moment decision making.

Perhaps for those two reasons, she has natural chemistry with another Loser of contrasting influences: Richie Tozier. Richie is impulsive to the point of being socially obtuse but is also a compulsive attention seeker. Both Beverly and Richie also seem to have a kind of easy access to solitary autonomy which may come from their respective alienation. This rapport between them is one of the strong, early indications that Richie’s manic sense of humor protects a serious vulnerability of his own.

This shared alienation between Beverly and Richie (largely during the theater scene) is one of the original novel’s most successful moments of subtlety. It’s an exchange that perfectly exemplifies showing and not telling.

Perhaps, since King pulled that off so well early on, he felt compelled to avoid explanations with Beverly as an adult to the point of making her obtusely blank- nearly featureless at times. For whatever reason, King could only write one chapter with adult Beverly doing interesting things on her own initiative and it was her first appearance.

While we’re on this subject, I think It the novel had two big experiments with characterization: Beverly Marsh and Henry Bowers. At least, the characterization of Beverly and Henry is executed differently than nearly all other characters in the book.

I’ve already outlined a few reasons why Beverly stands out from the other Losers during the childhood segments. As an adult, King seems allergic to lucidly pinning down character mechanics with Beverly. Like I said earlier, it’s possible that, since he succeeded so well at showing instead of telling with Richie, Beverly and Ben at the theater, that he became anxious about being too frank. The memory that Beverly has of orgasming at the sight of birds on a power line is particularly obtuse. At the risk of sounding misandrist, it almost seems like something a man would think who believes that female sexuality is fundamentally mysterious and therefore portrays it as a series of non-sequiturs.

Granted, lots of things seem very mysterious on a subjective level, but no other character gets the same explicit attention paid to their budding sexuality that Beverly does (a possible exception being Patrick Hockstetter). When Beverly is an adult, it’s as if Stephen King wanted very badly to get into her head but couldn’t quite pull it off. To me, it looks obtuse, but it’s also very possible that every single nuance is intentional, which is why I singled Beverly out as a glaringly experimental character.

It Chapter Two got rid of the unnecessary ambiguity along with a narratively distracting love triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben. With a film this plot-heavy, anything that can be streamlined should be and the straightforward romance between Beverly and Ben really worked for the best. A shadow of the love triangle was maintained through Beverly’s mistaken belief that Bill wrote the “January Embers” poem and the kiss at the end of the first movie, but in general Beverly and Ben are the only two members of the romance.

Jessica Chastain also brought a personal magnetism that made her portrayal of Beverly an intuitive point of empathy for the audience along with Bill, Mike and Richie. The script for It Chapter Two also allowed Beverly to maintain her lucid apprehension and independence from childhood.

Streamlining the romance between Beverly and Ben is desirable not just for keeping stray plot threads to a minimum but also because the meandering, unclear portrayal of her sexuality and romantic pulls in the book is weirdly sexist. Or at least weirdly sexualized. Once or twice, novel Beverly will say things like “you were all my boyfriends back then” or something equivalent that is unclear enough to not be taken literally but romantic enough for the possibility to be real.

This seems to allude to the sewer scene at the end- an explanation that barely makes it any less weird than if it had none at all. I also don’t feel like I need to spell out why hyper-sexualizing the one female protagonist is regrettable and slovenly. And then there’s a sexual encounter between Bev and Bill whose plot or character function has never been clear to me. Given how visual the scene was, though, I can only assume it was important to King himself. Not to mention, Beverly’s easy relaxation into the romantic and sexual sharing between the male Losers (*giggle* male Losers) has no consistency with her childhood characterization. All of this is blessedly absent from It Chapter Two.

While Beverly in the novel is an experimental character, she’s an experimental character with rather few risks (to say nothing of that memorable little scene in the sewer). From a trope / narrative standpoint, she has no inherent tendency to rock the boat, but the experiment fails in spite of that.

Henry Bowers, meanwhile, comes with a handful of glaring narrative risks. The first and most obvious of these are his flirtations with becoming a one-dimensional spooky villain. The last time I read It, I remember thinking that he was on thin narrative ice in the scene with the rock fight. Especially when King tries to highlight his growing instability by describing him, as he hangs from a fence he’s climbing, as a “baleful spider”.

In the childhood segments, any sympathy Henry elicits is purely by implication. One may conjecture that he was unlucky and tormented by virtue of having a physically and psychologically dangerous parent, not unlike some of the Losers, but we scarcely see much of that from Henry’s own point of view. As an adult though, we get to see behind Henry’s eyes for the first time.

So far from the bristling menace of the childhood Losers, adult Henry is a terrified, vulnerable patient at the Juniper Hill mental hospital outside of Derry. From Henry’s perspective, we are given an interesting kind of characterization. Henry does not have the same kind of internal dialogues the other characters do: every word formed in the privacy of his own mind is clothed in the voices of others.

At its most abstract and generalized, this happens through the voice of the moon (Pennywise, obviously, but Pennywise can only work with what a mind is ready to offer her). Henry’s self-torturing thoughts happen in the imaginary voices of the Losers. Later, with the magic of Pennywise, Henry encounters an undead version of a childhood friend, Belch Huggins, that was constructed from his imagination.

And none of these imaginary vehicles for his thoughts have a two-way exchange with him: they either berate Henry or give him orders. While he is in a car with Pennywise, disguised as Belch, he starts to wonder if Belch holds him responsible for being left to die as a child. Henry attempts to apologize and the apparition simply turns its head and says “Just drive the fucking car.” This is as close as Henry ever comes to succeeding to “talk” to one or his mental mouth pieces.

Assuming that we often talk to ourselves in ways we are used to being spoken to, this clearly comments on the relationship between Henry’s internal life and how it’s been shaped by others.

While adult Beverly came out better in It Chapter Two than she did in the book, adult Henry rather lost out. Which is unfortunate considering how well-acted he was as a preteen in the first Muschietti It movie. The actor did just fine but the direction and editing just didn’t seem to have a lot of room for him. To the film’s credit, I was truly freaked out when Henry tracked down Eddie. I knew that Eddie survived the encounter in the book but Game Of Thrones has tempered my expectations of the willingness for on-screen adaptations to kill characters who don’t die in the source material.

Luckily, though, good pacing was the only reason to be startled by that scene. Henry Bowers’ involvement in the plot ends shortly afterward when Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier plants an axe in the back of his head as he attacks Mike Hanlon.

Which brings us to another noteworthy point of departure from the book. Like many stories in the haunted village sub genre (Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.) the town itself constitutes a character of sorts.

In It, this was largely conveyed by the Interlude chapters that were written as journal entries and research documents done by Hanlon, with coverage of past visits Pennywise made to Derry. These Interludes gave us the story of the fire at The Black Spot, a World War II era bar for black military personnel. Mike’s father was a private stationed in Derry at the time and was present for it, and fans of The Shining may recognize a younger Dick Hallorann among the survivors. The Interludes also contain a retelling of a shootout prompted by the arrival of the Bradley Gang in the twenties and the explosion of the Kitchener Iron Works decades later.

Essentially, we get to know Mike as a narrator before we see him as a child become the seventh and final Loser. It Chapter Two attempts an inversion of his leader-scholar status by having him appear slightly unbalanced and maybe even dishonest. One narrative function this provides is that Pennywise is able to use Mike’s omission of the dangers of the Ritual Of Chud to drive a wedge between the Losers near the end and add a bit more drama to the final battle.

The way in which Mike learns about the Ritual itself helps streamline the plot somewhat, even if it partook of the wise visionary Native trope. Mike was able to see the arrival of the creature separate from the other Losers and relayed it back to the rest of them as adults. Specifically, to Bill, who later clues everyone else in. This enables the introduction and explanation of this concept to be an exchange between characters rather than just straight explication.

The Ritual itself was also portrayed very effectively: the Losers are separated into different, specialized temporal nightmares that they need to overcome in order to face Pennywise together. This is very good visual language that pins down something from the book that would have been nearly impossible to film otherwise.

I would almost go as far as to say that the visual unfolding of the final confrontation with Pennywise does more than supply images for the film to hang its hat on: it is potentially more compelling than what the novel describes. At least, it is more lucid and more accessible. Since the plot revolves around how Pennywise manipulates the fears of the Losers, the approach of desperate personal nightmares puts each character arc and it’s resolution on full display.

Speaking of character arcs, this might be a good time to mention the re-imagining of Richie Tozier.

Speaking purely as a fan of the book, I felt very validated by him being portrayed as gay. And his homosexuality is more than just hinted at in the film.  When we see Richie revisiting the heart he carved at the kissing bridge, it contains R+E, and there’s only one person that E could credibly be referring to.

As a fourteen year old reading the novel for the first time, I gravitated toward that interpretation simply because every character had conventionally heterosexual yearnings except Richie. I began to wonder more about it later since Stephen King seemed to struggle with fleshing out the specific nuts and bolts of the fears within Richie that leave him open to Pennywise.

When five of the Losers speak about Pennywise for the first time in the Barrens, they all share a story except Richie.  In a later flashback, we hear about the Paul Bunyan experience, which seems almost startlingly pedestrian after Eddie’s leper, Mike’s giant bird, Beverly’s bloody sink or Bill’s bloody photo album.  Even Ben’s recollection of the mummy is more interesting than the Paul Bunyan statue.  And it took until nearly half of the book to get to it, as if King knew it was something different but couldn’t quite pin down what.  If there is a commentary track on the DVD of It Chapter Two with Stephen King, I’d be interested to hear about anything he says about the process of creating Richie, although the plainness with which his homosexuality is made clear was probably a decision made by the screenwriter.

So it appears as if Stephen King wrote Richie knowing the way that Pennywise would exploit his fears would be different from the other Losers but wasn’t sure how exactly.  Richie’s mysterious but exceptional qualities continue to be apparent when the final confrontation starts and Richie’s onslaught was the attack that really turned the fight in the Loser’s favor.  Then there’s the easy access to independence as a child that seems to lead to a platonic bond with Beverly on top of the fact that he’s the only male Loser that doesn’t seem to have ordinary heterosexual desires or fantasies.  I’m not saying that homosexuality is the only thing that ties all of these traits together but you gotta admit it would fit the bill.

While I definitely have to cop to being happy over my adolescent fan theory being validated, I can see how this might not be totally welcome, especially since they chose to follow the book with Eddie’s death rather than going all the way with the romance.  And since many of the events of the book were switched around to serve new functions in this film, the murder of Adrian Mellon at the very beginning could prompt some viewers to look for a deeper LGBT thread in the film.  One of the Losers turning out to be LGBT could predictably satisfy that instinct. This was less of an intuitive prompting in the novel since it’s placement there was clearly intended to bookend the timelines with Pennywise’s first appearance in each: it begins with Georgie in 1957 and with Adrian Mellon in 1984.

In the end, this second half of Andre Muschietti’s film adaptation surprised me with how closely it followed the plot of the original book, stood on its own as a film and even improved upon the narrative weaknesses of the source material.  With so many book-to-film adaptations falling flat, something like It Chapter Two is a refreshing reminder of what could be done with the right creative team.

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 they’re 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 descendant 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 bibliography.  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 with 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 my own judge of truth and untruth and to discern my own unique path and calling.

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.

Victor Hugo & The Man Who Laughs graphic novel

I think Victor Hugo’s novels are always going to be tricky to adapt. And probably on every level, from the reason why a lot of people enjoy them to how both casual readers and those adapting these books read them. Which may be the root of the conundrum: how exactly to read Hugo.

One of the major obstacles on that front is how and where he’s been classified in the history of world literature. Hugo was contemporary with Alexandre Dumas and Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand and is intuitively grouped with the French Romantics, yet in some ways his work is quite at home in more modern, experimental conventions. There are a few incidental reasons why a modern reader might detect a certain psychedelic flourish that we shouldn’t get too caught up with, such as the divided eighteenth century European literary trends of hyper-realism and florid, unbound subjectivity. On one hand there were socially and politically grounded artists who saw the living pressures of society as their foremost responsibility, on the other, there were those who thought the exclusive province of art was the internal life.
It makes sense that Victor Hugo would be fully aware and involved in the contemporary passions of his day and, while many writers, painters and composers would choose a side and stay there, the fact that Hugo would alternate between the two shouldn’t surprise us that much. There is another aspect of his writing, though, that I think could potentially place him close to the likes of William S. Burroughs, Mark Z. Danielewski or even modern graphic novelists. This was Victor Hugo’s inclusion of the sensibility of visual, three-dimensional mediums such as painting and architecture into his novels.

Obviously, Notre de Dame de Paris (known to the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is a glaring example of this and in many ways can be read as a sort of key to the rest of Hugo’s novels. While Hugo was a meticulous literary craftsman and researcher and very concerned with things working appropriately in their context, his work is far from being traditionally linear. Many of his novels begin with orienting our view of events as readers rather than orienting the characters themselves. Notre Dame de Paris starts with Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo, who do not participate in the events that drive the plot so much as they witness them. And they usually witness the story around them without understanding much, if anything, of what is happening around them. Les Miserables begins with Charles-Francois Myriel, the Bishop of Digne and an outline of the events that led him to believe the things that he does before meeting Jean Valjean. We even get more than a few indications from these chapters about the scope Hugo projected for Les Miserables: Myriel came from a noble family and, as a young man, he had a zest for pleasure seeking. An unspecified trauma related to the French revolution destroyed his appetite for libertinage and he dedicated himself to a life of ascetic spirituality. A chance encounter with Napolean led to him being appointed Bishop of Digne. Most memorably, one of Myriel’s first visits to someone suffering on their death bed was an elderly member of a revolutionary government. Set as the story is after the restoration of the French monarchy, this old exile is “little better than a monster”. This encounter rocks Bishop Myriel to his core and it’s the last really personal glimpse we have of him before we see him in the company of Valjean. While the rest of Les Miserables is largely bound by a plot, we get an attitude toward a period in the history of France along with meditations on the role of religion, capitol punishment and death. At the beginning of Quatre-vingt treize, we meet the mother of the two small children that accompany us throughout the novel before we meet Cimourdaine, Lantenac or Gauvaine.

L’homme qui rit, or The Man Who Laughs, is no different on this front. Before we have a proper encounter with Gwynplaine we get two Preliminary Chapters. One shows us the inside of Ursus’ cart where he lives with Homo the wolf, covered in lineages and careers of the families of the British Peerage. The other is an exhaustive break down of the history of the fictional Comprachicos, Spanish nomads with their own unique Creole tongue, fiercely loyal to the Catholic Church, who have traditionally practiced and maintained the art of mutilating and crafting children from a young age to grow into marketable curiosities. Within this practice there are different disciplines and arts that bear the stamp of specific individuals or schools of practice. One we learn about in short order is masca ridens, the laughing mask, a hallmark of the work of a Doctor Conquest and his heir Hardquanonne. Another literary device we see in L’homme qui rit and other works by Hugo are fictional scholarly documents and resources that are introduced within the book but distinctive from the story, after the manner of supplementary material for something that actually happened.

This can happen in glaringly obvious ways, such as the in/famous Waterloo or Sewer chapters in Les Miserables, but some of the more effective usages of this device happen in less overbearing ways. For example, for all the times that Hugo dives right into the private subjectivity of his characters, there are others where he claims not to know their thoughts any more than he could read the mind of a real person, as if all he can do is impartially report things as they happened and anything else would be speculation. Consider this moment in Notre Dame de Paris when Frollo is watching Esmerelda and Phoebus have sex:

“In what sinister order was he arranging in his thoughts La Esmeralda, Phoebus, Jacques Charmoloue, his beloved younger brother, so lately abandoned by him at the dung hill, his archdeacon’s cassock, his reputation perhaps, thus degraded to La Falourdel’s- all these images, all these adventures of his? It is impossible to say. But certain it is that these thoughts evoked horrible pictures.”

Likewise, in Les Miserables, there is the chapter Une tempete sous un crane in which Valjean has to grapple with the possibility of breaking his cover. Hugo ventures several long glimpses into Valjean’s mind but, when Valjean goes to sleep briefly, Hugo refers to a fictional collection of documents left behind after his death that describe the dream he had that night, with the deserted village, the ghosts and the dark rider upon the skeletal horse. The emphasis on the reader’s perspective as something outside of the novel itself is emphasized by Les Miserables division into five books with a neat line drawn down the middle: Valjean as the protagonist in the first half and Marius in the second. The novel ends with an anonymous epitaph on the grave of Valjean, again, as if Hugo can only relate what happened, but can’t speculate outside of his scope.

In L’homme qui rit, one of the expressions of this more quiet use of fictional objectivity happens when Hugo’s narrative voice will blend with the internal narration of Ursus, which keeps us in touch with our first Preliminary Chapter in which we see the writing on the walls within Ursus’ cart. Sure enough, our last image in the novel is that of Ursus waking up to the absence of Gwynplaine and Dea, with Homo at the edge of their boat, “baying in the shadow and looking down upon the water”.

In every Victor Hugo novel I ever read, the orientation of the reader’s perspective is given at least as much attention as the design and mechanics of the plot. The very act of reading, how, when and where the novel reveals itself to us, is an essential concern for any writer, but the nature of Hugo’s shaping of our own perspective and the text’s own treatment of authenticity seems almost post-modern. Consequently, reading Victor Hugo well is a gradual and layered experience, which contrasts interestingly with how his stories are treated with archetypical simplicity in the modern west. While we’re on the subject I’d like to recommend a YouTube video by Lindsey Ellis called The Case For Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which deals carefully with this contrast, although I do think Lindsey committed something of a minor, forgivable oversight. She says that Notre Dame de Paris was motivated entirely by the historical vandalism of Notre Dame Cathedral and a wish to drum up attention for it’s preservation. I’m just not sure how you could walk away from that book and continue to think that: the relentless and flamboyant cynicism at least seems indicative of Hugo’s constant pre-occupation with the oppression of ancient, medieval institutions like the Catholic Church and monarchy in general. Then there’s the Ceci tuera cela (This Will Kill That) chapter that breaks down that very phrase in the mouth of Claude Frollo (Frollo’s inner narration blends with that of the narrator almost in the same way that Ursus’ does). It is a comment on how architecture is losing ground to literature as the most influential and important art form in the west. Given the attitude Hugo expressed toward literacy in other works, it’s hard to read Ceci tuera cela as a strictly negative statement, especially since he equates the shift with the transition from monarchy to democracy.

Lindsey Ellis makes an important point, though, in that adaptations of Hugo’s work tend to be far departures from the letter of the source material. The west seems to have adopted these stories as mythic archetypes, perennial outlines with fluid relevance, rather than the work of an individual writer. Victor Hugo himself anticipated and possibly encouraged parts of this, as an operatic adaptation of Notre Dame de Paris was made in his lifetime with his blessing and co-operation. Hugo even corresponded with an anarchist named Louise Michel who would often sign her name as Enjolras. Hugo was intimately familiar with art influencing life and vice versa, and his anticipation of the diverse ripples of his work makes sense given that he did not write his novels strictly as…well, novels. He would meticulously shape and manipulate the reader’s point of entry and understanding of his stories, so much so that reading Hugo often feels like watching Hugo. A three-dimensional object is situated in three-dimensional space; it’s very existence presupposes a a wider setting and other objects with relative relationships to it.

This is why reviewing an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s work requires a certain amount of care. A wide diversity of interpretations is a natural consequence of Hugo’s legacy. Also, as with any artistic legacy, diverse readings and interpretations are simply how the living relevance of important works manifests. So deviation from the original letter of the work is to be expected and does not, in and of itself, constitute a weakness. However, deviations from the letter do invite new readers to wonder why a given adaptation makes its deviations. With many adaptations of Hugo’s work, the stripping away of the narrative complexity is obvious: it simply makes it easier for a mainstream audience to digest. Other deviations speak to more idiosyncratic details of newer readings, though.

Consider Hugo’s attitude toward women: he was probably as feminist as we could reasonably expect an eighteenth century upper class, philandering French male to be. To hear him tell it in his own words, he probably believed in the social equality of men and women as strongly as he believed in universal literacy and representative government (that is, after he forged his bond with his mother’s side of the family and began to grow apart from his male-line attachment to French nobility and Peerage). Nonetheless, he has some typically chauvinistic moments regarding female characters, such as his tendency to sexualize and infantilize characters that represent daughters. There is, though, a difference between Hugo’s expressed misogyny and how others have read that misogyny. Eponine from Les Miserables, por exemplo. In the original novel, she is probably one of Victor Hugo’s best written female characters, along with being morally ambiguous. Eponine would knowingly trick Marius into joining the Friends of The ABC Society at the Rue Saint Denis barricade out of sexual jealousy and possessiveness. Along with her foot in the door of the dangerous woman trope, she also dresses as a man to join the revolutionaries, taking us into the trope of the deceptive female. For some reason, though, the author(s) of the musical decided to render Hugo’s misogyny differently, even worse in some places.

A current script for the musical has Eponine goggling in awe at Marius’ books and fawning over his hair. Is that deviation going to hugely impact the character of the musical? Maybe not hugely. It does effect the audience’s perspective of Eponine. Nonetheless, it’s curious that the stage writers decided to downplay the existent misogyny in Hugo’s portrayal of Eponine and invent different and more obvious misogyny. In an essay, Oscar Wilde singles out Fantine as uniquely romanticized and sexualized, writing that Hugo invites the reader to “kiss her bloody mouth”. Evidently, many readers have observed Hugo’s misogyny over the years and those that attempted new adaptations have channeled it differently. So much so that it’s hard not to anticipate some version of it in current adaptations; unlike the complicated filtering of the reader’s perspective, Hugo’s misogyny was more changed in translation than lost in translation. In any case, both of those changes are familiar to anyone who has read Hugo and experienced newer renditions.

Other deviations and interpretations have obvious contemporary motives, such as Disney wanting to continue their early-to-mid nineties winning streak and create a lucrative segue toward Broadway, as Lindsey Ellis explains in her video. In the wake of the success of Les Miserables as a musical, multiple live action films were made, either to cash in on the renewed interest or to provide a more “complete” and “faithful” option for those who felt the need for one in response to the structural changes the musical made.

The journey that L’homme qui rit has made throughout pop culture has many similar complications. One thing that’s bound to effect the modern American reading of L’homme qui rit is how the Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal in a nineteen-thirties film adaptation. I know I was pretty gobsmacked when I learned that Victor Hugo helped give birth to the Joker. In an afterward to the graphic novel adaptation of The Man Who Laughs, written by David Hine and illustrated by Mark Stafford, Hine points out that very through-line and it’s role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. He refers to Heath Ledger’s Joker speaking the lines “let’s put a smile on that face” as “a twisted version of Gwynplaine”. It’s hard to disagree, at least in terms of direct influence. Even if it’s the nature of mythic archetypes to be perpetually relevant but in a different way for each era, this particular emanation of Gwynplaine is a stark departure. I don’t know the precise mechanics of Hine’s creative process for this book, but hypothetically put yourself in the position of someone writing a Man Who Laughs comic after decades of the Joker. Compared to the original, the only apparent connection is the total moral pessimism and paranoia. Making a completely new, personal and organic interpretation would necessitate breaking one hell of a pattern.

For the most part, David Hine and Mark Stafford had no problems with making something unique and memorable. There were a few other problems, though, some of which I remember other writers stumbling over while attempting to bring unconventional subject matter into the graphic novel medium. I remember reading a graphic novel about Bertrand Russel a few years ago in which the author would go meta every now and then, draw himself and show us sketches and chats between the creative team and his own rants about how he couldn’t find a way to capture this or that concept. I found it entertaining and it kept me hooked for a little while, but eventually I started wondering why the metafictive device was used and eventually I put the book down since so much about the presentation seemed to be taking up my attention and not providing anything meaningful to the telling of the story. A really egregious example of someone trying to innovate and bring in exciting subject matter to graphic lit happened when some biographies of the central figures of the Beat literary movement were published as comics. As a Burroughs aficionado, I naturally couldn’t resist, and sure enough almost the entire script was bland, lifeless explication. The series was like reading a pamphlet about the Beats with these simple little sketches with word balloons providing trite, out of context quotes.

The L’homme qui rit graphic novel doesn’t get that bad ever, but there are still a few moments that made me squirm a little inside. In the early panels, we see Gwynplaine in the company of the Comprachicos boarding the ship at Portland Bill. One of them steps in front of Gwynpaine and shouts “Not you!” as everyone boards the ship without him. It’s just such a bald moment and there’s no obvious reason for it. Was it to let the reader know what’s going on? We don’t hear about the recent kingly ban on the Comprachico’s mutilations until later in the story (in the book we hear about the illegalization of Comprachico’s slave trade early on). And, for the purposes of the graphic novel, that’s a perfectly good place to address it. In order to understand this opening scene, though, all we need to understand is that Gwynplaine is left behind. And there’s no obvious reason why the reader needs to be told that explicitly in the moment it happens. What if Gwynplaine is off playing on the beach, looks up and sees the boat floating off, having had no warning? Something like that would have worked just fine and the effect of seeing it before we hear about it would create dramatic weight when the Comprachico’s write down a collective confession that they toss away in a bottle as they capsize.

There are a few other awkward moments of explication, such as the omniscient narrator interjecting out of nowhere the origin and role of Lord David Dirry-Moir / Tom Jim Jack. During the same explicatory break, we also get explication on the roles of the Duchess Josianna and Barkilphedro, which, at least, is arguably efficient. As someone who loved the novel (the first and so far only book I ever read in French) I can empathize with the desire to include the off-beat friendship between Lord David and Duchess Josianna: it’s colorful and entertaining in the original story, especially the various clubs that Lord David belongs to (such as The Fun Club, whose members break windows and set the huts of poor people on fire) and his passion for boxing, which compels him to live and sleep with a given boxer for a long time while training them and carefully monitoring and dictating their diet. Then there’s Hugo’s florid descriptions and voyeuristic pre-occupation with Duchess Josianna. Her pre-occupation with slumming, living a separate life in disguise and wanting to become super-human- combined with her different colored eyes -actually made me think of David Bowie a little. Pleasantly uncanny. While Hugo definitely get’s very typically voyeuristic with this character, it’s handled very differently from other sexualized female characters, and I can understand the temptation to want to draw her in a comic, simply to see what she would look like. I empathize with David Hine’s desire to include Lord David and Duchess Josianna- if I made my own adaptation, I’d be excited to think of how to portray them as well -I’m just not sure why he did it the way he did.

When Hine writes as an omniscient narrator, his diction maintains a connection with the language used by the characters which helps support the tone, but that doesn’t add a strength so much as it simply makes the explication easier to come and go from. Like the “Not you!” moment at the beginning, it’s not terrible, but I can’t help but wonder why. And both of those hiccups are unfortunate, since the illustrations and the sequential connections between the panels are very creative and a more tightly written script could have really made it pop. Another missed beat between writer and illustrator is the handling of Gwynplaine’s face in different contexts. Gwynplaine is largely incapable of any facial expressions besides his gruesome, artificial smile. There are parts in the original novel that I could picture being really poignant in a visual medium: when Gwynplaine is taken to the prison where Hardquanonne is being interrogated he loudly protests his innocence. Gwynplaine is reduced to hysterical shrieking and rambling, since he thinks he’s being accused of something but doesn’t know what. I could clearly picture his pale, sweaty, terrified face with it’s perpetual smile, with tears rolling down his face, screaming the lines “You have before you a poor mountebank!” For any visual adaptation, a live action film, an animated film or a graphic novel, how to portray Gwynplaine’s face with different emotions would be one of the really interesting parts. During most of the parts when Gwynplaine is afraid or anxious, though, his smile in the graphic novel comes off as lecherous. Maybe that was intentional, maybe not. Maybe it was meant to be vulnerable awkwardness.

Another significant departure is the softening of Ursus’ tone. In both the original and the graphic novel, Ursus is a cynical yet enthusiastic verbal performer. In the original, though, he is almost relentlessly sarcastic and angry. If ever he says anything positive, it’s ironically suggested by a frank negative comment. Graphic novel Ursus is hard-bitten, but not relentless. I don’t think this would draw the attention of someone familiar with the book too much- more of a nit-pick, I suppose.

In general, though, the plot was smoothly adapted. The chapter breaks are well placed and the thematic artwork on each chapter’s title page adds something to the graphic novel’s character. I think the tone of the ending was also handled well. There was a live action L’homme qui rit film a few years ago that seriously botched it with a scene with Gwynplaine sinking beneath the waves and encountering a ghostly, angelic Dea. (I also have a bad attitude about that film for several other reasons…not least of all why they decided go with a vampire-like sex appeal for Gwynplaine. Someone I watched it with said he reminded her of Brandon Lee in The Crow).

Speaking of Dea, I think Hine and Stafford did alright with her, given how much Hugo neglected her character development at times. You could say they did their best with what they had. I’d put it on par with the portrayal of Cossette in the 2012 film adaptation of the Les Miserables musical. Cossette certainly did not furnish a ton of depth to work with for future adaptations, especially if they were determined to remain faithful to the original text, and although her changes in the film script from the stage one were slight- such as the altered lyrics of some songs like In My Life and the reprises of A Heart Full of Love and Suddenly at the end -I found them welcome. In the original novel, Ursus tries to trick Dea- who is bedridden and blind -into thinking Gwynplaine is still there with his ventriloquism. The book encourages you to think he’s almost supernaturally talented at this and that Dea seeing through it is shocking. In the graphic novel it looks pathetic, which adds to the sorrow of the moment in a good way. I also enjoyed the graphic novel’s portrayal of Gwynplaine’s speech to the House of Lords at the end: he seemed like he was raging and letting himself go with his anger for the first time in his life, which I thought was neatly consistent with the original. In the live action film, I think they tried to play it like a mental break down, which played badly.

With adaptations of stories you care a lot about, it’s easy to foresee a lot going wrong and get protective. That’s definitely how I felt after seeing the live action L’homme qui rit a few years ago, and I think the graphic novel compares well to it. I can’t say that’s a high benchmark, though, especially since Hine struggled a little with the story structure and the tone. I’d be interested to hear what someone thought of it who knew nothing about the story beforehand. My curiosity has also been piqued with regard to David Hine, particularly another collaboration he did with Mark Stafford in a Lovecraft anthology.

Just finished Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat (spoilers)

Yeesh, it’s been awhile since I finished a book this quickly!  There are also a handful of surprising confluences from other precedents in Anne Rice’s body of work to be found in this most recent story.

If you’ve been an Anne Rice reader for awhile you have probably noticed that, every now and then, something like The Mummy, or Ramses The Damned or the Sleeping Beauty books will come along that offer a stark contrast to her more dense and sprawling works.  Also, if you’re an Anne Rice fan, you probably love her most when she knocks the breaks off of being sprawling and dense.  Not that the faster, energetic and shorter stories are bad- I and others appreciate them as novel departures.  Really, we’ve mostly gotten used to think of them as different, and sometimes alternating patterns in her work.

Now I don’t quite consider Blood Communion to be the same sort of fast paced-story as The Mummy or the like but this book went by so quickly and it was so action-driven and concise that I couldn’t help but be reminded of that kind of story.  It also reminded me a little of Lasher with how quickly the plot moved and the sequence of the threads resolving (Lasher is quite the unique book among Rice’s bibliography as well).  I mean, let’s not mince words, while Anne Rice shines when she’s ambitiously philosophical she is also very good at quick-moving thrillers.  These kinds of stories are undeniably enjoyable.

That being said, while I enjoyed Blood Communion there were a few things that I found difficult to get behind.  While we still haven’t gotten into spoilers yet I want to mention that this book shines best when you know nothing about the plot in advance.  If you want to read Blood Communion and get the most out of it, you might want to stop here.

First off, her treatment of the story’s apparent villain gave me pause.  This is something Anne Rice has typically been very good at.  Favorite examples that come to my mind are Akasha, Lasher, Gregory Belkin, Santino, Patronia and Lestat.  While the Brat Prince is on a very different and openly heroic path in these new Prince Lestat novels, Lestat has often been at his most compelling as an antagonist.  So I do think it’s fair to place Lestat on that list of compelling villains.  Owing perhaps to her deft footing in gothic storytelling, Anne Rice does a great job at villainous characters that are destructive and evil while still eliciting emotional, and sometimes moral, sympathy.

In genres like gothic fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, etc. that have many firmly established tropes, the situating of protagonists, antagonists and compelling motivations can be botched very, very easily.  Last spring I read the Lord of The Rings trilogy for the first time and I was as impressed with Tolkein’s delicacy as I was with his vibrant and immersive world building.  Tolkein was quite deft at fleshing out characters in archetypal, mythic story arcs in which the mythological framework itself may have boxed in a less talented writer.  Often, the simplest things are the hardest things…and the most impressive things when they go well.  Anne Rice is good at the simplest things.

One of the biggest failings of the Queen of The Damned film is it’s total simplification of Akasha.  One reason for this had to be because the studio was afraid that a villain specifically targeting men might alienate part of the anticipated demographic.  The movie version of Akasha did not have the Utopian ambition of book Akasha, which was central to one of the Vampire Chronicles‘ huge themes: moral optimism versus moral pessimism.  Three books into the Chronicles, we have met Lestat and Marius and have experienced their belief that the Enlightenment has opened the most important and liberating horizons for the West and humanity’s greatest steps forward are still ahead of us.  Akasha’s certainty that humans need a firm, authoritative hand to keep them in line makes her the ideal counterpoint.  Lasher and the Taltos are also slam-dunk antagonists: when Michael Curry brutally murdered him and Rowan Mayfair shot and killed Emalaith my heart was absolutely broken.  Rowan and Michael’s actions made sense but the pathos evinced by the Taltos made those actions hurt miserably.

In many ways, Benedict and Rhoshamandes fit this pattern.  Back when Prince Lestat first came out, Benedict and Rhoshamandes were my favorite new characters.   One reason is that they were a sympathetic pair of lovers and they were pitted against all of the main characters.  I was also intrigued by how many of Rhoshamandes’ fledglings ended up with the Children of Satan and how Lestat himself is descended from Rhoshamandes, through Benedict and Magnus.  If there was going to be more New Tales of The Vampires, I would have loved a Rhoshamandes novel.  In all honesty his role in Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis was disappointing but that novel had enough innovation and substance to make up for it.  Rhoshamandes’ expressed hatred for Amel at the end of the Atlantis novel was fully consistent, though, and held promise for the future.  Between Blood Communion and the last book, it seemed that Rhoshamandes had transferred his animus from Lestat to Amel and could potentially target the Children of Atlantis.  Lestat extracted a promise from him not to do this but who knew how binding that would be in the end, especially considering Rhosh’s prior conflict with Lestat.

This brings us to his role in Blood Communion.  What Rhoshamandes does in this story hinges entirely on how we know about his growing rift with Benedict and how we are made to believe it.  Before we learn about this in earnest, we hear Kapetria tell Lestat that Rhoshamandes has been stalking and menacing the Children of Atlantis, barely stopping short of open threats of violence.  Then Benedict appears at Court, offering Lestat the gift of a gilded throne.  Benedict explains that he intends to end his life and gives reasons that seem to refer directly to alienation from Rhoshamandes.  He says that “two is not enough”, that a relationship with a single individual with no outside input can never be sufficiently nurturing, that vampires transformed in youth or childhood never truly extricate themselves from relying on their adult makers, and that certain wounds can bring forth a rage that is “primitive and catastrophic”.

The context for these remarks is clear: Benedict and Rhoshamandes have always relied exclusively on each other and have never truly wished for any other companionship.  Benedict, like Armand, was also transformed early in his youth.  Benedict’s words indicate that he can never really exist apart from Rhoshamandes but so far has never needed to.  Only one thing, in the thousand years these two vampires have been together, has ever driven a wedge between them: Rhosh’s increasing violence and single-minded anger ever since Amel was stirred to action and Lestat’s ascendance to the rank of Prince.

What also lends context to this is Rhoshamandes’ behavior pattern before Amel, during the events of Prince Lestat, instigated the modern day Great Burning.  Rhoshamandes has never tolerated conflict or aggression and has avoided it at times to the detriment of himself and his fledglings: he would rather abandon his holdings in France when he was attacked by the Children of Satan than take action against them and even allowed them to capture his fledglings Allessandra and Everard.  This makes a bit of sense in light of the fact that Rhoshamandes had found his true love in Benedict and had ceased to desire anyone or anything else, but there is something else that explains it more.

In Prince Lestat, we learned that Rhoshamandes was a pirate in his human life who ran afoul of Akasha’s Queen’s Blood army and was press-ganged into an existence as a vampire warrior.  During these early years Rhoshamandes and Nebamun- the modern day Gregory -were neck and neck for supreme military authority within the Queen’s Blood.  Rhoshamandes was clearly very successful in the wars between the Queen’s Blood and the rebels of the First Brood and was even clever and driven enough to assist in Nebamun’s escape and achieve his own.  Between his human life and his early existence as a vampire, we know that Rhoshamandes is no stranger to conflict, has no fear of it and is a force to be reckoned with in battle.

If someone is a seasoned and capable warrior yet avoids combat at all costs, what does that look like?  Do the claims of other characters, alleging that he is a coward, seem credible?  Not really.  Rhoshamandes’ long-established behavior pattern seems to be the product of his experience as a pirate and a Queen’s Blood soldier.  He has, perhaps, learned first hand that he wanted his warlike existence behind him.  Then, under the influence of Amel, he murdered Maharet, essentially bringing him back into something that was long behind him.

I realize that I’m relying a lot on what is unsaid, but I believe these unsaid things speak rather loudly: after a long life of combat, Rhoshamandes lived a private and largely peaceful existence.  Him breaking this pattern, that has been the rule for most of his existence, seems very telling.  It makes sense that it would cast a large psychological shadow and that, while he may understand that Lestat himself did not directly and maliciously cause this return to older things, Rhoshamandes would continue to associate this event with Lestat.  If Rhoshamandes met Benedict in the midst of his long non-violent stretch, what did they see reflected in each other?  How did that precious, sustaining reflection change once Rhoshamandes was tempted back into violence?

All of this may be unsaid but I find it hard to read the first three Prince Lestat stories and not be aware of them and I think they supplement Benedict’s explanation of his suicide profoundly.  For Benedict and Rhoshamandes, two seemed to be enough, and had been enough for a thousand years.  Perhaps, after the murder of Maharet, Rhoshamandes felt banished from Benedict’s love as a consequence of his remorse and self-loathing.  Violence was something Rhoshamandes had put behind him and perhaps he could not “undo” the results of having crossed that gulf again.  If Rhoshamandes was haunted by guilt and self-hatred over the death of Maharet, then how must he have felt when Benedict had to beg for his maker’s life at the end of Prince Lestat?  Rhosh walked them into the first circumstance where separation was a genuine possibility.

For eons, Rhoshamandes had found his peace in solitude and passivity.  This reversal, perhaps more than his temporarily removed arm and humiliation before all other vampires, was likely more than he could bear.  He could never go back, he had ceased to be the person he saw reflected in Benedict and lapsed further into anger.  Benedict was referring to a growing rift between them before his death and few other things seemed to be a likely cause.  Two things changed for them in the last three books: Lestat is now the vampire monarch and Rhoshamandes has lapsed back into a previously suppressed violent state of mind.  If, during that time, these two lovers are being estranged, there’s only so many apparent reasons.

Tragically for Benedict, he needed Rhoshamandes more than Rhoshamandes needed him, and the neglect brought on by Rhosh’s self-loathing was more than he could bear.  As he said, “two is not enough”, especially since Benedict had been transformed as a relative young adult, if not child, he has never been able to learn to exist on his own.  This destructive journey into solipsism left no room for Benedict and he did not know how to go on.

To the best of my understanding, this is how the rift between Benedict and Rhoshamandes happened.  The possibility that this was brought on by Rhosh going down a path of solipsism due to self-loathing is also evidenced by the fact that Rhoshamandes held Lestat solely responsible for Benedict’s death.  Because of Lestat and Amel, Rhoshamandes returned to violence.  After the death of Benedict, Rhoshamandes doubled down to the point of attacking Gabrielle, Louis and Marius in order to cause Lestat as much suffering as possible.  If Rhoshamandes’ arc revolves around a belief that oneself is violent and evil beyond redemption, it would certainly make him a perfect opposite to Lestat’s frequent rejection of self-hatred.  In this respect, the role Rhoshamandes plays in the plot of this story works well.

Does it rub me the wrong way at all?  Maybe, and maybe not even for good reasons.  The tragic fate of Benedict and Rhoshamandes tugged at my heart-strings, certainly, but I also have to cop to an admittedly childish disappointment that we may not get any more stories with Rhoshamandes and Benedict, save through flashbacks.  I’m allowed to not like it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it works.

At the same time…I’m not sure how this elaborates on another long-standing pattern in Anne Rice’s writing and in the Vampire Chronicles: tragic love.  While The Vampire Armand may remain my favorite story in the Chronicles, I found the romance between Lestat and David in The Tale of  the Body Thief to be the most painful and therefore, perhaps, the most tragic.  Lestat was not able to love David on purely consensual and nurturing terms.  David’s love for him played a subtle role in his temptation to be human again, the only form of existence David ever wanted.  When Lestat realized he truly did not wish to be human, he also refused to let David go as a result and took him into vampirism against his will.  I think the dynamic between Armand and Marius is also very poignant and complicated, and I don’t believe I have to go into the emotional roller-coaster of Interview With The Vampire.

Are there any happy love stories in the works of Anne Rice?  Totally.  Tonio and Guido, Morrigan and Ashlar, even Armand and Daniel had parts that were very touching and sweet.  Even Lestat and Nicolas and Lestat and Gabrielle.  But there is certainly a strong pre-occupation on the ins and outs of unhealthy relationships and why people sometimes do the worst things to those they love the most.  No way do I think this has to be positive all the time: stories about adversity are vitally important and nurturing.  Everyone suffers and we live better when we know that suffering does not have to destroy us.  I think this is part of the sustaining function of dark fiction and dark art in general.

As a set of stories about resisting despair and destruction, this is very natural territory for the Vampire Chronicles.  This is even more true for the last three books in particular, in which Anne Rice says she wants to open doors (paraphrasing an interview).  I think these particular doors could have been opened more effectively if we had more recent moments with Lestat bonding with Gabrielle, Louis and Marius.  One of my favorite chapters in Prince Lestat is when we meet Sevraine in her golden caves with Gabrielle and Eleni and Allessandra, and it’s a very powerful moment for Gabrielle and her son as well as Amel.  I think Blood Communion could have benefited from more scenes like that beforehand, we also could have gotten a better look at the current state of Louis and Lestat’s report.  Louis had an important role in the plot of Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis but we’ve never really seen him attempt to co-exist with and love Lestat on the same scale as Interview With The Vampire.  

I don’t think these nit-picks constitute a genuine weakness, but with the dynamics between Benedict and Rhoshamandes so recently established, the delicacy and passion of Lestat’s attachments may be overshadowed.  This, though, is something of a circumstantial issue in the placing of these events in the bigger context of the Chronicles.  Lestat’s various relationships and all of their nuance have been very thoroughly established, it’s just that so many of them happened so long ago.

Even this, though, could be seen as a careful implementation of an older trope.  As I said earlier, Anne Rice is very good at the simple things, and mythology and archetypes and ancient tropes can, for many of us writers, be treacherously simple.  This is something Anne Rice does well, and in so many classic tragedies and landmarks in gothic fiction we see the incremental revelation of the antagonist’s background.  Perhaps, for certain kinds of detective fiction and horror, this is the fundamental plot dynamic.  In this respect, the heightened visibility of Benedict and Rhoshamandes makes perfect sense, and as witnesses to the destruction from Lestat’s perspective, we are well-placed to understand Lestat’s passion for moving the Court and all vampires to transcend self-hatred.  In a genre in which we see Erik the Phantom die in the arms of the Daroga, Victor Frankenstein murdered by his creation and Carmilla staked and dismembered by the family of her lover, this plot structure is well precedented.

Nonetheless, on a purely personal and subjective level, I was saddened to see Benedict and Rhoshamandes die, especially since we’ve already seen so many relationships between characters in the earlier Chronicles turn fatal.  And I wish the parallels between Rhoshamandes and Lestat- who turned Claudia into a vampire as an uncomprehending child and transformed David violently and against his will -had been more front and center. Lestat himself has been the most dangerous and possessive of lovers, which makes his current misery even more significant.

We see Lestat deeply and spiritually shaken in a way reminiscent of Memnoch The Devil and Queen of The Damned and, arguably, Blood Canticle, and this lends necessary gravity to Blood Communion.  Lestat’s sense of ambiguity and moral nausea with the introduction of the Court’s public executions is also well placed in this regard.  But I felt that Lestat did not exactly have the same feeling of momentous change at the end of Blood Communion as he did with Memnoch The Devil and Queen of The Damned.

Since I’m almost finished with this review I feel the need to mention something that I just wasn’t sure where to place in the rest of this.  When Gabrielle is abducted by Rhoshamandes, Lestat spends a somnolent daytime in the loving embrace of Gregory, Nebamun that was, and has a very interesting dream.  Lestat is aware in this moment that each and every soul is a planet unto themselves and one travels from planet to planet by looking at them.  This very strongly resembles an early moment in Dante Alighieri’s Il Paradiso, when Dante realizes something similar under the guidance of Beatrice during his first encounter with Heaven, when they travel from place to place by thought and attention.  I could probably keep writing for awhile about using that reference in that particular moment but I’ll try to be brief.

Legendary pilgrims such as Dante, Orpheus and Gerda in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen have gone on profound, visionary odysseys prompted by the loss of a loved one, journeys of revelatory spiritual import.  The significance for Lestat in his moment of debilitating grief is obvious and Lestat has himself made such pilgrimages in prior stories.  Like Gerda, Lestat brings his loved ones back to the land of the living.  The significant departure the Andersen story makes from Orpheus’s fatal separation and Dante’s divestment of his human sinfulness stands out.  If anything, we can agree that Anne Rice’s ambitions in these new stories are at least that much of a mythic departure from traditional gothic fiction and it’s this ambition that makes her one of my main inspirations and heroes as a writer myself.