Friday, October 30, 2009

a dark, dark tale

Earlier this month I would wake up early and go to work, and the air would be crisp and would remind me of when we used to go camping when I was a kid: that getting out of the tent feeling early in the morning. Then a few weeks ago the sky was so blue and I could almost hear the hot air balloons overhead—October is always Balloon Fiesta time in New Mexico. The other night there was a night bird singing as the wind blew all the leaves from the trees—not only is it autumn, I thought, this is Halloween weather.

I’ve asked myself many times why this “holiday” so obsesses me. When I was writing columns for Noticias for fun, I wrote one seasonal one about Halloween, in which I tried to justify Halloween (not only to myself, but possibly to people who think it’s Devil-worship). I’ll quote directly from the article:

In an excellent essay by Neopagan Isaac Bonewitz, it appears that Halloween as we know it had its origins in the Celtic/Pagan fire festival of Samhain[1]. Some scholars refer to it as the beginning of the Celtic New Year, and it was certainly the beginning of the Winter Season. When it was absorbed into the Christian church calendar, the day became All Saints’ Day. Celtic seasons started at sunset, so the night before became “Hallowed Evening,” of course translating to “Halloween.”

Many of the recognizable traditions we practice on Halloween today come from this Celtic tradition: the handing out of treats for youngsters, the theme of death and the spirit world (which we see most purely translated in Dia de los Muertos today), and, my personal favorite, costumes. As author Philip Carr-Gomm describes in Elements of the Druid Tradition, “Time was abolished for three days of this festival [Samhaim] and . . . men dressed as women and women as men.” As for the candy, early November has for centuries been a time of feasting; by the late nineteenth century, rowdy kids in Ireland and the United States made themselves such a nuisance on Halloween that adults organized “safe” Halloween rituals for the younger kids. A little later, we see the word trick-or-treat coming into use, about 1939.
Halloween is still very much an American holiday, though commercially I’ve seen it making in-roads in the UK and even France. I don’t quite know why it caught on in the US; I suppose you’d have to ask Washington Irving! Different countries have different times for festivals of misrule and/or costumed shenanigans,

The costume element of modern Halloween can be incredibly fun—disguise and pretense ameliorated by the spirit of the day. Mardi Gras functions this way in some countries, such as France, that don’t celebrate Halloween. Medieval feast days, including, perhaps most famously, January 6th, the Epiphany (or the Feast of Fools), were opportunities for role reversal through costume. The rich and poor would exchange roles, doing this through costume, and the Catholic religion would endure one day of mockery (“mock the prig and shock the priest”) from its normally devout flock. Human culture loves to pretend, a custom we’ve kept going since ancient Greek drama.

From what I’ve experienced in Britain, Britons don’t need an excuse to dress up, they will do fancy dress any time of the year, as the custom of pantomime proves! I have wondered why Canadians have more of a concept of pantomime; I speculated that tough colonials like Americans and Australians wouldn’t stomach the concept of cross-dressing in the same way. Am I totally off the mark? Perhaps we Americans needed to align this fancy-dress thing with Halloween and its appeal to a darker nature in order to make it socially acceptable?

I concluded in the article that it was the dressing-up and the appeal to the darker nature that fascinated me about Halloween. I’ve written tons about that darker element, since the Gothic Horror class gave me ample opportunity to do so.

Granted, as Bonewitz goes on to say, “Halloween became a holiday in modern times for which half the fun was being scared out of one’s wits.”

Don’t ask me why, I love the Gothic, I love that frisson of fright. (among others) But firmly in fiction: my imagination is too good that if anything unearthly ever happened to me, I’d probably die on the spot of sheer terror.

But thinking back, I probably began loving Halloween because my mom read Halloween books to me when I was very small. I remember them well. Scared Silly had to do with Harold the dog, Chester the cat, Howie the dachshund, and Bunnicula the rabbit, not to mention their unsuspecting owners the Monroes. I loved Scary Scary Halloween because of the lovely rhyme, the thought of the mother cat protecting her kittens from monsters even though they were just kids in costumes, and then the cats getting to play after all the kids had gone home. I also remember Clifford’s Halloween and The Berenstein Bears’ Halloween. A Dark Dark Tale scared the crap out of me even though it had an ending that deflated all the fear you’d built up. It was mostly Stephen Gammell’s horrific illustrations from the Scary Stories series that kept me up at night. I would not recommend those books for very young children. Adults, even. Similarly horrible illustrations for Jack Prelutsky[2]’s The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight.

I don’t think I’ve raised any new points here or plumbed any depths of my subconscious to tell you better why I like Halloween so much. To be fair, I also love Christmas and go to great lengths to do all the festive things at that time of year, too. It’s funny, you look at Dickens, who popularized Christmas into the huge, jolly[3] festival it’s become today, and all he wrote about at Christmas were ghosts! He, too, must have realized that people love the little chill on their spine that makes them sit closer to the fire. Mind you, that Spirit of Christmas Still to Come is scary. Have you ever seen Scrooged? Or Want and Ignorance who come out from under Christmas Present’s robe begging for pity and help? Even Dickens’ supernatural was tinged with a social conscience.

Have you ever seen Disney’s Fantasia? The “Night on Bald Mountain” is another potentially terrifying sequence, but you know how it ends? Calmly—with figures holding candles and putting the anti-Christ mountain back to sleep. That part used to bore me as a child (!) but there is that element to Halloween, too. It’s appropriate that many people in New Mexico still celebrate Dia de los Muertos—even though everything is all skeleton-themed, it’s about thinking of your dearly departed, the passing of your family and honoring their memory. Nothing spooky, nothing scary. The flower traditionally associated with this day is the marigold.

I wonder if that’s why I’m so attracted to Milton’s Comus above everything else he ever wrote, including Paradise Lost. It took place and was written for Michelmas, the Carolinian Halloween and a festival of misrule, perhaps a bit like the Shrovetide Ball held in Phantom of the Opera. His study in excess and insatiability, Comus, Circe’s son, is as seductive and intriguing as his Satan, and we all find our selves “taking the Devil’s part” to an extent. However, he’s never allowed to win, order is restored, the Brothers, with the help of the Attendant Spirit and Sabrina the nymph, free the Lady, and the whole group return from allegory into real life on 29 September, 1634.

Oh yes, and I do love the candy. :-)


[1] Pronounced “sow-en.”

[2] I met this beloved children’s poet when I was five or so, he signed my copy of Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast and drew a picture of the “Leslie-a-saurus.” Then I met him a second time when I was 20 as he was a family friend of my boyfriend at the time!

[3] Some would say overcommercialized

The Krillitane Storm

The Krilllitane Storm by Christopher Cooper (spoilers)

I must say that, though the title didn’t grab me, the idea of the Doctor in 12th century Worcester did. I wasn’t disappointed; though the book started out in a formulaic manner, it eventually defied expectations and was entertaining and not your usual monster runaround. There’s a lovely mock-medieval woodcut of the Doctor with sonic screwdriver, which really sets the tone. :-D

Though I liked “School Reunion,” I thought the Krillitanes were the dullest part, notwithstanding Anthony Head’s oddly mesmerizing performance. The Doctor is companion-less, which was worked to varying degrees—I couldn’t help thinking of “The Deadly Assassin” at the beginning of the book, and the contrast—here the Doctor desperately needs someone to explain stuff to, as the tone is very much in that vein even if it’s a narrator (possibly in the Doctor’s head) giving the reader the low-down. For all that, he’s Tennant through and through, right down to getting kissed passionately by a woman pretending she’s his wife in order to save his life. (This section, whether it realized it or not, is the exact same situation Pierre Gringoire and Esmeralda find themselves in during The Hunchback of Notre Dame, right down to the Doctor escaping the noose. But I digress.) The woman, against type, doesn’t belong in the 12th century either. Her name is Emily, and though she’s very recalcitrant about her intentions initially, she isn’t stalking Krillitanes like the Doctor. The beginning of the book, with the Worcester townies stuck in their houses in fear reminded me of The Nightmare of Black Island and Wooden Heart, but it quickly changed tactics, to its benefit I think!

Another of Cooper’s invented characters is Captain Darke, also possibly straight from The Hunchback of Notre Dame but a good deal more intelligent than Phoebus. At first I found him a bit tedious but he grew on me. I liked how he chastised his men for believing the Doctor’s psychic paper when they couldn’t read! Darke is godless and disillusioned, a distinct possibility I suppose since he may be an ex-Crusader (like Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe!), but it seems convenient that the characters in the book accept that the Krillitanes aren’t the Devil. Cooper acknowledges that there isn’t much history in this book, and while that’s true it seems to work for the story—we know that Stephen and Matilda are fighting for the crown, and although medieval characters have dialects of a sort, it’s neither hugely pompous stage-writing nor way Cockney as is the more recent fad. As it is I prefer more of the meat of history as in Dale Smith’s The Many Hands, but it leaves room for huge incongruous set pieces like two Krillitanes fighting each other in the vaults of Worcester Cathedral (“Father’s Day”?).

The first U-turn in the book is that the Krillitanes aren’t the monsters. Oh, they’re as self-satisifed and phlegmatic as in “School Reunion,” and as savage and voracious, but they’re being used, “farmed,” in a highly unethical, seedy subplot, perpetrated by evil, sleazy conmen and scientists, so much like an updated “Nightmare of Eden.” The Krillitanes’ brood and family system is explored to impressive detail (whether this all came from Toby Whithouse or another source is hardly relevant). Oh, there were touches of other things ranging from Star Wars to The Monsters Inside to “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but I don’t know that’s because my mind always makes connections that way or if the work itself was derivative. The book’s pace was good once it got going, and I did find it exciting, a page-turner.

The switches in perspective threw me off; many of these Doctor Who books do that without warning. It has always struck me as an amateur way of moving the story along, but perhaps that’s just sour grapes. Emily, even if she is named after the author’s daughter, isn’t as distinctive a one-off companion as June, and despite a strong beginning, I wish she’d had a bit more development. I also got a “Shakespeare Code” vibe from medieval Worcester (which isn’t too far off; didn’t they film there for that episode?). I can almost imagine Ten, well-written as he is, being replaced easily by Four—he’s that kind of Doctor and this is that kind of story.

all a matter of perspective

Radha handed me Rubina Ali’s Slumgirl Dreaming: My Journey to the Stars saying it was a quick and interesting read, a semi-autobiography from one of the child stars of Slumdog Millionaire. She did warn me beforehand that it was no great work of literature, and I did get through it in a few hours. The font was huge and the typos abundant; there was a lot of Hindi in it that I didn’t understand. I suppose what surprised me the most was although Rubina lives in a slum in East Mumbai, she was never desperately poor. She grew up with a loving family (aside from her estranged biological mother) and until her father’s accident caused him to be unfit for work, she and her siblings were supported by her father and had enough to eat. Fame is, indeed, a double-edged sword, as it wasn’t until she had stayed in big hotels in America that she began to find the rats and cockroaches in her slum unbearable and yearn for a toilet in her own dwelling.

The writing is a curious mixture of the conversational musings of a ten-year-old and seems to have been transcribed by someone who speaks English about 80% accurately (not Rubina; having attended an English school at the behest of Danny Boyle, her English is improving but the book still lists two co-authors). Rubina is prudish about things like swimming suits (“very small clothes”) but the book doesn’t hesitate to call the sewers in East Bandra full of “shit!” She also mentions hijra and later children being sold into slavery. As a devout Muslim, Rubina and her family are charitable—“I have a better fate than many.” She approaches something like irony when she describes hotel guests in LA looking at her and her co-stars, swimming in a jacuzzi for the first time, as staring at “jungle animals.”

Among the many people she meets in her rise to fame, she loves Danny Boyle and calls him Danny Uncle. She loves ice cream, chocolate, pretty clothes, but not pizza. She’s heard of Bollywood but not Hollywood: “Do the Americans make lots of films?” she asks in LA.
“Yes, loads!”

It’s all a matter of perspective.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Land of Bells

I finally finished the book Jamie got me, and it was great. My slow speed was not due to listing attention but lack of time! It was The Codebreaker’s Secret Diaries, the first translation into English of the diaries and letters of Jean-François Champollion, the Frenchman who cracked the hieroglyphs in the early 19th century, and someone about whom I was mostly unaware. I would love to read the original material in French as something is always lost in the translation, and though the book is well put-together and has good linking material, the footnotes seem to be off and there are some editing issues.

Overall, though, a fascinating read. This probably wouldn’t have been a book I would have picked myself and therefore would have cheated myself of a compelling story that has convinced me that a), b) or both needs to be made into a radio play:
a) Champollion’s journey through Egypt, 1828—1829
b) The 1801 surrender of the Rosetta stone passing from French hands to English ones
I also feel I need to visit the British Museum again, as Champollion’s enthusiasm on all things Egyptian will not be sated by the poor mummy of Hor in Swansea Museum.

The title is a slightly misleading one, as though the book consists of Champollion’s letters (mostly to his older brother) and his diary entries, they really weren’t secret. Nevertheless, despite his mastery of languages and intuition on hieroglyphics, Champollion was embroiled in the politics of Egyptian decoding in the early 19th century and as such had a few enemies who made his trip to Egypt difficult—not to mention the political situation in Egypt at the time and the perils of the journey itself.

Because I have been interested in ancient Egypt since at least the age of 10, it was inconceivable for me to imagine a time when hieroglyphics were not understood. Yet reading Champollion makes you realize for how many centuries the pictographs sat undeciphered. Champollion assembled his dream team, a mixed group of Tuscan and French naturalists and draughtsmen, and told them to provision a year for the journey! (Think—we can fly from Europe to Egypt in a few hours!) I feel very cool to have visited the Egyptian museum in Torino which is mentioned in this book—at the time it was the prime source for Egyptian antiquities in Europe (what Champollion shipped back during his expedition formed the basis of the Louvre’s collection).

For the non-Egyptologist, what is the value of the book? Well, as the quotation on the back from the Sunday Times says, “his enthusiasm is infectious.” As a travelogue it’s quite interesting; his descriptions of Cairo and Alexandria in particular. He’s an amusing and witty writer, and as any Frenchman would talks about the food in Egypt, particularly trying to relish salted crocodile meat on the occasion of his daughter’s birthday and about the virtues of drinking gallons of Nile water. Champollion’s theories on the hieroglyphs were, at the time, controversial because if he had deciphered the dates correctly it would invalidate the literal reading of Genesis in the Bible—he also writes surprising things like, “If I were to judge the future by the past, it isn’t the Muslim population who will hinder me but rather the European one, that is to say ‘Christians,’ who , as in the rest of the Levant, are the worst of their kind.” He also describes the local dress he adopted, the better to work in, and has much to say on negotiating with the Ottoman Turks who controlled Egypt at the time.

Champollion talks occasionally about Egyptian women in something between an ethnologist’s observations and sort of objectifying, and it’s curious that none of his letters to his wife are in the book (either he didn’t write them or they don’t include anything relevant; he does mention her a few times with affection but no indication of what she thinks of her husband being away for a year!). He does reflect approvingly on the “courteousness” of the ancient Egyptians, that the wife of the prince Satmei is “shown after her husband and before all the other officials.”

The sad thing is that Champollion’s poor health finally conquered him at the premature age of 42, exactly two years after he returned from his Egyptian expedition. There is definitely a bittersweetness as he leaves Egypt, knowing with certainty he will never see it again. This is something somewhat foreign to us now, as even though you can be pretty sure you may leave a place, with technology it’s not 100% certain you’ll never be there again. Though he had the companionship of his team and the fellahs he hired as workers, the long days he spent in his tent due to gout must have been lonely and frustrating. “I am still without news from all of you since the letters from July. Either the post is very badly organized (frustrating) or you are not writing. –unforgivable. Either hypothesis only depresses me, which I am doing wholeheartedly. Egypt is the most beautiful school in patience that exists in the world, but its lessons don’t stick.”

batman and son

I’ve said before I don’t particularly care for the Ras al Ghul thread or his progeny, and it rather sickens me in fact to think Batman and Talia al Ghul ever could have had a child together, but that’s personal preference I suppose. Anyway, that’s the conceit at the heart of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Son, well-written and beautifully drawn by Andy Kubert and Jesse Delperdang.

Batman and Son is somewhere in the middle of a complicated Batman storyline vaguely in line with beginning at the beginning again, though it’s well into Batman’s career and Tim Drake is the second Robin. The Joker’s just been shot by a cop dressed up as Batman, and Commissioner Gordon has just succumbed to the Joker’s laughing gas (resulting in a fairly amusing scene of Gordon in the hospital telling everyone they need to lighten up) . The story sees the return of hordes of Man-Bats (I’ve never understood the fascination with that character, but there you go). Talia tells Batman he’s sired her son, Damian, who’s been raised by the League of Shadows and is one bratty individual who beats up Alfred! There’s a subplot to do with London but the setting is really never brought to its full potential, though there is a nice romance between Bruce Wayne and Jezebel Jet, a model.

Tim and Alfred are the winning slices of brightness and humor here, though a conversation between two “novelty crime act” goons is a hoot and also presages, slightly, the beginning of The Dark Knight. Speaking of which, I hope Grant Morrison got some money out of TDK, because “The Clown at Midnight,” over-the-top, gluttonous, disgusting prose-poem with art for the Joker foreshadows the Nolan!verse Joker. Morrison is either a very good writer or the world’s absolute worst. I can’t decide which, and I’m sure it’s deliberately been left that way. John Van Fleet’s art is totally unnerving and perfect, and hidden within the Joker’s tale of horror is a surprising conclusion for Harley Quinn. The Joker here is at home with knives and from the art it looks like he’s carved, or had carved for him, a Glasgow grin. (Also he appears to be dressed in a nurse’s outfit as in TDK!) I did chuckle morbidly at the thought the Joker’s toxic blood would kill a mosquito. Morrison has written Harley better than anyone since Paul Dini, and although she may at first look like a pathetic, psychotic weakling, she almost foils Batman with her lightning-fast gymnastics and grace. She’s the one who pulls the trigger and stops the Joker.

The last chapter of Batman and Son makes absolutely no sense to me. Great artwork, no idea what’s going on.

the man in the iron mask

This is the third in the series of Marvel’s Illustrated line, basically the Classics Illustrated for the Noughties, and I have to say I was bitterly disappointed. Not by the artwork by Hugo Petrus and Tom Palmer, which is fairly standard comics fare (perfectly good draftsmanship, but very regular panel arrangements, made for telling a long story rather than wowing with the artwork). By the story!

I’ve never read any Dumas. I had The Three Musketeers sitting on the shelf next to Les Misérables for years, but I never got to it, it was such a massive tome. I’ve seen the Wishbone episode though! :-D I know most people agree that the book is always better than the movie, but I’m one of those weirdoes who often find the reverse to be the case. I know the Randall Wallace Man in the Iron Mask was a huge flop, but I saw it many times with my sister (going through one of her Leonardo DiCaprio phases; I preferred Gabriel Byrne!) and we loved it. I thought the story from Dumas’ original was going to be like that. Turns out it’s convoluted and much less heroic, probably truer to history, and the swashbuckling is actually kept to a minimum. Obviously I can’t judge a book on its graphic novel (!), so I will read the original one day (in French if I can). But I am still seriously disappointed.

There are too many differences (improvements?) to name. Still, you can see why it would be difficult for anyone to adapt the story of the three musketeers plus D’Artagnan. Unbeknownst to me until now, The Three Musketeers is the first part of a trilogy ending with The Man in the Iron Mask, known as The Viscount of Bragelonne; or, Ten Years Later . The middle volume has the dull title of Twenty Years After. Now I know from my mother who remembers having read one or all of these many years ago that despite the sprawling quality it’s quite good. I have read abridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo in French (for French class) but that hardly gave me a good idea of Dumas’ style. Now, I’m indebted to Dumas—he and Victor Hugo helped give us the Romantic, French historical novel, no doubt inspired by Sir Walter Scott (and, if my instincts on parts of Man in the Iron Mask are correctly, Maturin). But again, I can’t say how well it was emulated without reading the final product.

torchwood: rift war

I almost think Torchwood works better as a comic than as a TV show. At least until recently, and the comic actually goes in the opposite direction of “Children of Earth”—it’s a bit more user-friendly, not all the sex and sharp edges we got from the first series (thank God), probably because being published in Torchwood Magazine, it had to contend with a teen/young adult audience. That’s my theory, anyway. Torchwood might even work better as a comic than Doctor Who, because in Doctor Who even if you split up the Doctor and companion(s), you can only have so many threads of the story going at once—whereas Torchwood (at least before the end of series 2) had a big team!

There are a couple of reasons why I loved this collection much more than I thought I would. First off, it has some great (and very distinctive) art by Paul Grist, SL Gallant, D’Israeli, and Brian Williamson. Grist is now drawing for DWM, and his very simple, cartoony style works well—especially for characters like Owen. I almost feel like “Making It Stranger” could be done in this style. SL Gallant is slightly more painterly. Willliamson is trippy, very graphic design/CGI/photorealistic. I like them all.

Also, as it’s Torchwood it’s set in Cardiff (mostly) and therefore I’m tickled pink when the Castle features, as does Queen’s Arcade (which doubled for London when the Autons attacked Jackie in “Rose”) and amusingly, there are dinosaurs in the Millennium Stadium. :-D There’s a lovely appearance from Rhys, and some good Cardiff in-jokes (GWEN: “Six hundred years of degenerate godless behavior.” JACK: “Cardiff on a Friday night”). Overall they’ve got the scripting right, though, as I said, the team are a lot less snippy with each other than I remember. And apparently Jack and I both share a fondness for Guy of Gisborne in black leather. :-D
The stories . . . are episodic and move at a nice pace. Nothing ground-breaking here, but fun. I’d recommend this volume over some Doctor Who graphic novel collections!