Annihilation, the film: A Fresh Review

Natalie-Portman-in-Annihilation-photo-Paramount-Pictures-1038x576 (2)

Natalie Portman in Annihilation (2018, Paramount-Pictures)

Scott Ashlin doesn’t pull punches. If he doesn’t like a movie, he will tell you, and he will tell you why. Ashlin, also known as El Santo, writes reviews at one of my favorite sites,  1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. Even though he jokingly calls his site “aimed exppressly at wrong-thinking,” Ashlin actually excels at knowledgeable film criticism. That’s why I was so interested in his opinion of Annihilation (2018), based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, directed and co-written by Alex Garland. Many reviews of this film, both good and bad, seem to have agendas. S. T. Joshi, for example, hardly ever likes the most recent books of the weird or their movies, preferring the old, grizzled masters.  For example, he dismisses Stephen King and champions H. P. Lovecraft. It’s almost as though you can’t be that good if your book has been made into a blockbuster movie. Joshi is a great scholar of the weird, and I enjoy reading him, even if I don’t always agree with him.

But here is Scott Ashlin’s unsolicited opinion of Annihilation. He likes it:

 What I am certain of is that Annihilation is suffused throughout with something that’s been largely missing from mainstream science fiction movies for far too long, a sense of the vast and awesome strangeness of the universe that we inhabit. One of my favorite characteristics of the best and most ambitious sci-fi of the 50’s and 60’s is that it reveled in the majesty of the unknown. . .

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S. T. Joshi Chides Again

Unutterable Horror

Today via Wormwoodiana I learned of this book review by Michael Dirda of S. T. Joshi’s new book, Unutterable Horror, at The Weekly Standard’s Book Review

Because Joshi  is so opinionated, Dirda suggests that we “trust Joshi on the books he praises, but look for yourself at those he dismisses or disdains.”

Here’s an excerpt of the review: 

Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are. 

And, yes, they are also scary. Sometimes really scary.

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Weird Fiction is Thriving on the Vine

Great good news! Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have launched a very promising online journal dedicated to the examination and enjoyment of outré literature, called Weird Fiction Review. Not only does the first issue contain an interview with Neil Gaiman, I see on GalleyCat that “the journal will maintain a ‘symbiotic relationship’ with S.T. Joshi’s print journal, The Weird Fiction Review.” This is a very good thing, Joshi being one of the world’s foremost scholars of the uncanny genres.

I like the way Jeff and Ann refer to their project as “a non-denominational approach that appre­ciates Love­craft but also Kafka, Angela Carter and Clark Ash­ton Smith, Shirley Jack­son and Fritz Leiber — along with the next gen­er­a­tion of weird writ­ers and inter­na­tional weird.” That quote is also from GalleyCat, and here’s a link to the entire article.

But Ann and Jeff VanderMeer didn’t stop there. They have a new book out. You know those old, weird/horror/sci-fi anthologies I like to talk about in my Bill’s Bookshelf series? Most of those books are from the 1960s or 70s, but here’s a brand new collection that carries on the tradition and brings it into the 21st Century. It’s called The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Stories. This ambitious labor of love  boasts over one hundred years of weird fiction collected in a single volume, representing  more than 20 nationalities, with seven new translations. Check out the table of contents.

Apparently, when Weird Tales magazine decided to replace Ann VanderMeer as editor, the magazine’s loss was our gain. Ann & Jeff’s book-life is flourishing like the verdant foliage of Ambergris.

Notes on My Novel

Tamper strives to balance mainstream storytelling with some of the more modern conventions, sometimes called meta-fiction, without alienating fans of either style. This gives fans of both meta-fiction and mainstream fiction something to talk about. To borrow a phrase from Cory Doctorow, it “brings more people into the tent.”

 In his book, The Modern Weird Tale, S. T. Joshi describes “alternatives to supernaturalism” and cites Thomas Tryon’s 1973 novel Harvest Home, in which rural New England villagers practice pagan fertility rituals. In this grisly tale, as Joshi points out, when a skeletal apparition is revealed to be a disfigured man, it does not diminish the atmosphere of horror.  This is the same dynamic that gave me goose bumps as a child when I read Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the second or third time, even though I knew the morning light would find a shattered pumpkin on the riverbank near Ichabod Crane’s hat.  On a more ambiguous note, Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has generated endless speculation because it leaves the reader to decide if the ghosts were real or imagined, and for that matter, if the ghosts were delusional products of the power of suggestion, does that make them any less supernatural?        

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. To again quote from S. T. Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale, this time referring to Thomas Ligotti,  “One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales.”

Finally, one of the later chapters melts into stream-of-consciousness prose, albeit, more accessible than the dense work of James Joyce and William Burroughs. For people who are curious, but not used to, stream-of-consciousness, this chapter is a comfortable place to explore and still find your way out. It should also please the more serious fans of weird literature.

Fiction for Readers Who Enjoy the Mechanics of Literature

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. 

Chapter 5 of  The Modern Weird Tale by S. T. Joshi includes this passage on writer Thomas Ligotti

“One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales. In ‘The Frolic,’ a psychiatrist’s report of a madman’s visions are uncannily like Ligotti’s own aesthetic quest for the unreal:

There’s actually quite a poetic geography to his interior dreamland as he describes it. He talked about a place that sounded like the back alleys of some cosmic slum, an inner-dimensional dead end… Less fathomable are his memories of a moonlit corridor where mirrors scream and laugh, dark peaks of some kind that won’t remain still, a stairway that’s ‘broken’ in a very strange way…”