Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Gettin' all 21st Century

Those who know me are probably aware that I am something of a confirmed and committed bibliophile. Reading is, quite simply, one of my favourite things and I regard books as almost sacred objects.

However, last week I finally cracked - gave in to the pressures of the modern world, if you will - and bought myself a Kindle. Yes, you read that correctly, I bought a Kindle.

And I have to say that it is a wonderful toy.

My reasons were rather pragmatic, truth to tell. I've never been happy reading books on a computer screen, (short stories are fine although I've always had a tendancy to print them out and read them at my leisure) but over the past few years I have amassed a rather large collection of ebooks, gleaned from various places (God Bless You, Project Gutenberg, Manybooks, and Black Mask, among others).

Now, thanks to the Kindle I can read them in comfort, take them with me wherever I go and generally enjoy them without the hassle of the computer, eye-strain and things of that nature.

I was sceptical at first and still believe that the ebook reader will never fully replace the printed word, but given the vast amout of books available in electronic format, it's been a good investment so far.

It has even got me thinking about producing an e-collection of my own - it's relatively easy to do given the right software (Calibre is a good 'un) and has helped bring me out of one of my occasional periods of creative lethargy.

So, stay tuned - the plan is to put a collection together in the next couple of months (probably of my Shining Cities stories as soon as the rights of a couple of them revert to me) and see where things go from there.

Will this stop me from buying printed books? Er, no (see the whole bibliophile comment above)

And, besides, I reckon it's about time I joined the 21st century (albeit in a small way).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Starring Mads Mikkelsen.
Gritty sword and sorcery with an historical veil, Valhalla Rising is something of a divisive film. Depending on your point of view it is either carefully composed, enigmatic, elegantly paced with bouts of balletic yet brutal violence or simply extremely dull and pretentious.

I rather incline towards the first rather than the second.

In Valhalla Rising Mads Mikkelsen plays One-Eye, a mute and practically unstoppable killing machine of a man, whose one mode of expression is violence. When first we meet him he is being used as an attack dog/gladiator by a group of Norse raiders. Tethered to a post, One-Eye is forced to fight other warriors to the death, the fact that he is unarmed every time makes little or no difference. Only a young boy, Ave, treats him with any degree of humanity, his 'Masters' being more interested in the money he can make them than in treating their 'dog' well.

One-Eye, however, has another, more arcane ability to see into the future and in doing so finds the weapon he needs to free himself from captivity, which he does with chilling brutality slaughtering everyone except Ave.

Later they joins with a band of Scottish en route to Jerusalem and instead of the Holy Land ends up in strange and savage land that some of them believe to be Hell itself. Thereafter follows journey into a heart of darkness that is as compelling as it is sometimes brutal.

A literal and metaphysical journey for its main protagonist, Valhalla Rising is a beautifully shot film, making brilliant use of its Scottish locations and in Mads Mikkelsen it has a central character who is every bit as enigmatic as the film itself. Mute and with a masklike expression throughout, One-Eye is nevertheless a compelling character, echoing rage, hatred, frustration and even compassion in that blank, fathomless face. It is One-Eye who is the focus of much of the violence throughout, although rarely as instigator.

In terms of style and pacing Valhalla Rising could be compared to Herzog's Aguirre – Wrath of God – the same atmosphere of grim fatalism permeates both films – or Jim Jarmush's Dead Man with its slow build up and sudden, albeit brief, bursts of action. What all three certainly share is a charismatic central performance, and here Mads Mikkelsen is quite simply extraordinary as One-Eye doing more with that one, fixed, expression than most actors can do with their entire bodies.

As with Bronson, Nicholas Winding Refn's other study of violence and violent men, the self-conscious and studied art house sensibilities of Valhalla Rising may not be to everyone's taste but for those with a taste for the less travelled cinematic roads it is a treat.
Released in the UK in the wake of 300, the film was promoted as an action adventure, a Viking version of Thermopylae if you will, and doubtless to the chagrin of many who were expecting a repeat of 300's high octane visuals and Hollywood gloss. But Valhalla Rising is a much more challenging film less concerned with the spectacle of violence and more about its effects on the soul.

Not an easy watch, but a rewarding one.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Directed by Lance Mungia. Starring Jeffrey Falcon, Justin McGuire.

It's movie week on the Computerbank, and what better film to start with than this?

A potent blend of Max Mad, Lone Wolf and Cub, 'fifties rock n roll and general surrealism, Six String Samurai is one of those movies so outrageous in both concept and execution that the only proper response is to cry Hallelujah!

In an alternative America, nuked and conquered by the Russians in 1957, the only bastion of freedom is the city of Lost Vegas, ruled for the past 40 years by King Elvis But now the King is dead and the throne needs a new occupant, bringing every sword swingin', guitar pickin' opportunist across the Nevada badlands eager to get their hands on the kingdom.

Among them is Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon), a bespectacled musician/latterday ronin, and even Death himself (Stephane Gauger although voiced by Lex Lang) manifested as nothing less than an avatar of Slash, complete with top hat, guitar and heavy metal sidekicks. Essentially a picaresque tale of swordfights and freaks as Buddy finds himself saddled with a young orphan boy (Justin McGuire), trailed by Death and hunted by all and sundry for his 1957 cherry-red Gibson guitar. Unfortunately for both all and sundry – including the Red Elvises, the Windmill People and the Pin Pals (three psycho bowlers, in case you were wondering) – Buddy is equally adept with a sword as he is with a guitar.

Shamelessly borrowing from any number westerns and Samurai movies (although most notably from the aforementioned Lone Wolf and Cub series even down to the every popular 'one man takes on an army sequence) as well as a cheeky nod to the cantina sequence in Star Wars, Six String Samurai is a movie that very much wears its influences on it sleeve.

Belying its low budget limitations with verve, wit and imagination, making good use of its desert locations, (something it has in common with Ryuhei Kitamura's equally demented Versus) Six String Samurai is most definitely one of those 'love it or loathe it' kind of films (for the record, I loved it).

Of particular note is the soundtrack by Brian Tyler (who performed similar duties on the alt-Elvis classic Bubba Ho-Tep) and the previously mentioned Red Elvises, creating a future-retro rock n roll that gives the movie a jaunty energy even in its darkest moments. Added to this is the wise approach of director Lance Mungia who's 'what you don't see won't disappoint you' attitude pays dividends more often than not (most notably in the scenes featuring the God of the Windmill People and, later, the disappearance of Death's henchmen/ backing band)

Although the ending of Six String Samurai falls into something of a metaphysical muddle (or to put it another way, it doesn't really make all that much sense) the film itself is a fun ride as long as you keep an open mind. A bigger budget might have been nice, of course, but sometimes you just have to work with what you've got – something that Six String Samurai does with aplomb.

Friday, March 18, 2011

MICHAEL GOUGH 1916 - 2011

Recent news reports the passing of the British actor Michael Gough. A stalwart of British horror in its glory days, Michael Gough appeared in a number of movies from both Hammer and Amicus including Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, Dr Terror's House of Horrors and The Skull, as well as notable appearances in such other films as Trog, Curse of the Crimson Altar, The Legend of Hell House and the truly bonkers Horror Hospital (where his performance as Dr Storm has to be seen to be believed). Later in his career he became part of Tim Burton's 'stock company' appearing as Alfred Pennyworth in the Batman films (continuing the role even after Burton's departure from the series) in the magnificent Sleepy Hollow - surely the biggest budget film that Hammer never made - and adding his voice to Corpse Bride and Alice in Wonderland.

Like Peter Cushing, Michael Gough always brought a certain dignity to even the most improbable of roles (Dr Storm springs to mind again) and although his career encompassed a wide range of television, film and theatre it is probably for his contribution to fantasy cinema that he will be rightly remembered.

Friday, March 4, 2011


(It's been a while since I did one of these so I thought 'Why not?')

First published in 1887, Rudyard Kipling's The City of Dreadful Night is as nightmarish a little tale as you could wish to read, a macabre journey through the nocturnal city of Lahore that in some ways prefigures Magic Realism in its darkly poetic transformation of the realistic into the utterly fantastic.

Racked by sleeplessness on a stiflingly hot night, the unnamed narrator (presumably Kipling himself) choses a random direction that takes him into the walled city itself, along a highway flanked with sleeping men, to climb the Mosque of Wazir Khan in search of a cool breeze.

In terms of narrative, that's your lot, similarly character development, obstacles to be overcome or any other of the accepted ingredients in the modern short story stew, and its precisely this freedom from narrative convention that allows Kipling to paint his vivid nightmare and that gives The City of Dreadful Night its power. It is, if you like, a fantastical piece of reportage, although very firmly anchored in the reality of 19th century Lahore, taken from the skewed perspective of the chronic insomniac.

The description of a 'disused Mahomedan burial-ground', sets the tone 'where the jawless skulls and rough-butted shank-bones, heartlessly exposed by the July rains, glimmered like mother o' pearl on the rain-channelled soil. The heated air and the heavy earth had driven the very dead upward for coolness' sake.' but is only the beginning of a brief but intense phantasmagoria where sleeping men lie like 'sheeted corpses... some face downwards, arms folded, in the dust; some with clasped hands flung up above their heads; some curled up dog-wise; some thrown like limp gunny-bags over the side of the grain carts; and some bowed with their brows on their knees in the full glare of the Moon.'

Taking both its title and tone from James Thomas' poem (which itself presented a nightmarish vision of Victorian London in all its polluted, industrial glory) The City of Dreadful Night is Kipling at his most powerful, macabre image piled upon macabre image where even the simple act of a man throwing 'a jar of water over his fevered body' becomes something much more siniister - 'the tinkle of the falling water strikes faintly on the ear. Two or three other men, in far-off corners of the City of Dreadful Night, follow his example, and the water flashes like heliographic signals' and the disappearance of the moon behind a cloud heralds an even deeper sense of horror than the 'sickly warm flood of light' which had pervaded both city and story before.

While his Imperial outlook tends not to sit well with modern audiences, Kipling was nevertheless a master of mood and, like Robert Louis Stephenson before him, had the uncanny knack of being able to pick exactly the right word at the right time. You can feel the heat of the Indian night, smell the 'evil savours, animal and vegetable, that a walled city can brew in a day and a night' and feel the sense of fragmenting reality that the narrator experiences as he walks through the nocturnal streets.

As the evocation of a waking nightmare The City of Dreadful Night has few equals and its influence can be felt in such works as M. John Harrison's Viriconium, Tanith Lee's Paradys and in the more baroque elements of C.J Cherryh's Sunfall sequence. If you've never read Kipling before, or thought him merely a writer of stirring adventure stories, The City of Dreadful Night may give you a new perspective on this fascinating and often brilliant writer.