Strange Playgrounds recently received a very odd communication - an email from email@example.com with no time or date stamp, containing what appears to be a fragment of a much longer piece, along with a preorder link to Kit Power’s forthcoming collection.
We contacted Kit, who confirmed the fragment was an extract from the book, but was mystified as to the email address and date stamp. With Kit’s agreement, here is the message in full:
They know about the machine! The flash came to me personally, via my desk com at work. 'Be on the lookout; experimental recovery device; blah blah...' - can't believe they are trying to claim it's post-War tech. Ridiculous; it's clearly far in advance of anything we could possibly bolt together - '...believed to be misplaced in one of the data-storage device warehouses. Item extremely dangerous, do not approach – flag to orange band clearance or higher. Interference with the device is punishable.' That last is not uncommon, but they'd normally offer a small bonus as a reward. I guess they are really worried about someone getting their hands on it; figuring out how it works.
I can see why.
Only trouble is, it means I'm running out of time. If they know about it, they'll figure out that it's been taken eventually. Then all they have to do is check the key card access logs for the warehouse, do a door-to-door of all the residences...
So. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to do something pretty drastic in order to get this out to you.
I'm not looking forward to it, but I have to get this information out before they catch me. It's too important.
But I can't do anything tonight, so might as well run samples Starting with--
So, you would have my confession? Very well, I give it freely. Still, I beg you, do not interrupt with your confounded questions, though I know you will have many. Save them until the end. That which I must tell, I would tell once through, lest I lose my nerve. Attend then, and transcribe faithfully.
It was a normal Wednesday evening. I had completed work in my study at the usual hour, and taken my supper with Isabelle. She was her usual delightful self – questioning, laughing, the spirit of gaiety alive in her shining eyes and rosy cheeks...
The tub had been prepared as normal: the large basin placed by the roaring fire, the water pleasantly warm but not hot. After our meal, Isabelle and I retired to the living room. The maid was dismissed, and Isabelle allowed me to disrobe her, giggling as I tickled her naked arms, squealing with delight when my whiskers tickled her belly.
She loved to laugh.
I lifted her into the tub and bathed her, talking to her as I did so about my day. I let her splash a little, watched her spread out and pretend to swim, my arms leaning on the edge of the tub, waiting to reach in and grasp her if she were to slip.
I washed her hair with soap, then blew some bubbles between my thumb and forefinger, her high voice encouraging me to increase their size, her laughter flowing like some sweet warming nectar.
I had turned to the fire, reaching for a jug of clean water to rinse her hair with, when the change occurred. When I turned away, she had been excitedly describing the bubbles, remarking on their sizes. This had continued as I turned, but as my hand neared the handle of the jug, her voice transformed. Mid-word it dropped, first low then high, then low, alternating with each syllable. At the same time, the words vanished, replaced by a nonsensical babble.
Each lower register seemed deeper than the last, each high note louder and shriller. I cannot fully put into words the terror that struck me in this moment; how horrified I was by that apparently senseless noise. Something in the alternating register, the apparently random sounds, struck dread into me as though I were hearing some awful incantation.
As if in sympathy with my panic, the large log in the centre of the fire split with a loud crack. Smoking embers flew into the deep rug and began to smoulder.
I was still looking towards the fireplace, attention caught by the tendrils of smoke rising from the rug, and my panic gave my voice a timbre and gruffness that would ordinarily command obedience, possibly even tears. I had a moment to curse my own harshness, to wonder at why I should be so gripped with emotion as to address her so harshly.
Then the babble rose again.
As I close my eyes now, I hear it still, every dread syllable. But I dare not repeat it. Suffice it to say, her voice deepened further, hitting notes that were surely not possible, and the high notes became screeches that grated my senses raw. The flames in the fire began to surge, burning hotter, the coals glowing fiercely. The smoke from the rug was becoming thicker, darker, and I saw flame there begin to flicker.
In a spasm of movement, I grabbed one of the jugs and poured it out over the smouldering rug with a cry.
At the same time I felt the heat from the fire increase again, becoming more intense, seemingly drawn into ferocity by the inhuman noises my darling daughter was producing, though in truth by then I scarcely recognised her voice. My gaze returned to the fire, eyes squinting against the heat, and there I saw...
There I saw the fire, receding and growing, falling back and away. The fireplace around it grew faint and faded, then the ground on which it sat sunk too, as though melting in the heat— DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT!
Forgive me. Forgive me. It— No, no, you weren’t there. Let me tell it, quickly.
The ground fell away before my unbelieving eyes, until I was kneeling upon a pillar of rock, surrounded on all sides by darkness, and a sheer drop. Far beneath me, as far as my eyes could see, fire spread in all directions, flickering and rolling. The babble had become a chant, the deep parts guttural as a mad dog, the high notes shrieking like a bird of prey, the devilish syllables seeming to warp my mind as surely as they warped the world around us. Boiling waves of heat rose from the pit, singeing my eyebrows, burning the very air in my throat.
My head turned back to the tub, seemingly of its own volition, and I beheld her.
Her skin had turned red, and her eyes glowed a sickly yellow, as though lit from inside by a flame burning some noxious substance. Her smile had become a leer of perfect depravity, pointed teeth pushing out at crazed angles from bloody gums, her lips splitting in places as the grin pushed her mouth unnaturally wide, as though whatever was passing through her by invocation was tearing her apart as it transformed her. I beheld her but knew her not, and when her eyes met mine, I saw only damnation; mine, hers, perhaps the world’s.
I acted on pure instinct. Though her size had increased somewhat, she was still an infant in basic form, so it was a simple matter to grab her legs and pull. Her red skin was almost painfully warm to the touch, but my grip held firm, and her head slipped beneath the surface of the water with ease.
I shifted my body, moving my hands to hold her shoulders, fearing that mouth, those teeth. I saw understanding dawn across that hideous visage, and then a ferocious rage that seemed almost to stab out at me; certainly I felt my heart lurch in my chest, but the fear that had galvanised me to action held me in its grip, and I maintained the downward pressure as the monster began to thrash.
How it struggled! The water churned and roiled as I wrestled with the inhuman figure. It seemed to last an age, long enough for me to wonder if perhaps this dread creature could somehow breathe underwater, but gradually the struggles began to lessen and I felt the awesome heat begin to dissipate, to withdraw. I perceived at the edge of my vision that the world was assuming its rightful shape once more, even as the creature in my hand began to shrink, to fade from that hellish bloody hue to the soft pastel-pink of my beloved Isabelle.
I beheld her there, once again perfect. My darling daughter. She lay at the bottom of the tub, beyond all pain, all misery, all love. At peace.
I sobbed for a while, before ringing for the maid. She in turn called for the constabulary, and there you found me.
This is my story. I will not tell it again. Do as you must, as your conscience and laws dictate. I pray only that the end be swift, and that afterwards I see her restored. That I might hear that beautiful laugh once more.
I desire nothing else.
The message ends there.
A WARNING ABOUT YOUR FUTURE ENSLAVEMENT THAT YOU WILL DISMISS AS A COLLECTION OF SHORT FICTION AND ESSAYS BY KIT POWER will be available in paperback and Kindle ebook from November 3rd, and will be free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.
Purchase the UK edition of the book HERE and the US version HERE.
I haven't read Stephen King's IT since I was a child; I believe I was ten or eleven when I first waded through it.
Not my favourite King novel by any stretch; the product of an era that I'm not the biggest fan of, when it comes to the man's work.
I much prefer his lesser known, more experimental pieces, when he delves into some truly demented subjected matter (The Regulators, The Mist, the Dark Tower books, Talisman, Black House et al).
For my money, IT is far more successful in a visual format: there's something about the aesthetics and images of the story that lend themselves beautifuly to visual representation (the image of Pennywise himself -the eponymous “IT,” a supernatural, child-devuring entity that manifests in the form of a demonic clown- arguably sustains to this day not because of the book, but owing to Tim Curry's portrayal in the 1990s TV series).
Not that the original TV series is anything to write home about; far, far from it: it was perhaps diverting and a little frightening for those of us who viewed it as children, but it does not stand up at all to an adult viewing (barring any of the moments with Tim Curry, who is sublime, it's deeply tedious and the "acting" of the adult cast is atrocious).
Despite this lack of objective quality, it has sustained a particular reputation down the decades, largely owing to the cultural climate in which it originally occurred: most of us originally saw it as children, either on TV or VHS, at a time when not only were we more credulous and susceptible to such work, but the medium itself was evolving at a rate of knots, allowing more pervasive distribution and exposure.
As such, most of my generation (and many of those after) have some concept of “Pennywise the Dancing Clown” in their personal mythologies: he maintains a certain power and status in memory, even though the work in which he occurred does not sustain repeated viewing (in fact dissolving in the light of any critical application, what terrified and traumatised us as children now revealed as hokey, not terribly well written or directed, in many instances, laughably atrocious).
The new film, on the other hand, is a demented 1980s carnival; it shears away what needs shearing away, refines and reduces the breezeblock of a book down to its essence then has enormous fun with it in a series of well-orchestrated set pieces.
It isn't the horror film many perhaps expect; more akin to the extravaganza of Poltergeist than the slow burning subtlety of Kubrick's Shining... a ghost train ride, with all of the orchestra stings, jump scares and shocks that one would expect, married to a cast of characters who are extremely charming and delightful to be in the company of:
The film's child cast is its beating heart; they are, to a one, funny, endearing and brilliantly framed: archetypes that we all know from fiction, TV and cinema, particularly of the 1980s. This is E.T. and Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Flight of the Navigator, The Goonies and Nightmare on Elm Street (the latter being what it most closely resembles in terms of tone).
Not profound. At all. It is not going to redefine horror cinema, but it might open the door for what will: it has done very well, by all accounts, meaning that studios might start taking chances on horror projects again, and that the next Exorcist or Halloween or Alien might not be too far away.
Also, it's rip-roaringly fun; it doesn't take itself too seriously, but runs with its own monumental absurdity and makes a virtue of it.
Bill Skarskard as Pennywise is sublime; every instant he's on screen, he's engaging and threatening and often bizarre to the point of surrealism.
One of the many factors that distinguishes him from Tim Curry's original portrayal is that this Pennywise is more wholly demonic yet also more clown-like, his character not a million miles away from the children he feasts on (especially when it speaks). Tim Curry's portrayal, being bounded by constraints of budget and technological restriction, doesn't have much in the way of physicality: the clown either appears or it doesn't, and is often static, whereas the updated version gambols and leaps and twists and slithers, sometimes resembling a circus acrobat or even various animals such as lizards or spiders. His framing, physicality and range of motion are part of what makes him so impressive; there's a genuine sense that the creature beneath the clown is alien to the Nth degree; a factor that is demonstrated towards the end of the film, when it goes full blown Lovecraftian.
A key concern regarding Pennywise (who is the fulcrum around which the story turns) was that its design is too overt; clearly not a clown, but some demonic parody thereof. However, owing to the situations in which the character occurs and the manner in which the film frames him, he is always genuinely unsettling, especially when in close proximity to the children and engaging in his characteristic, juddering, out-of-synch motion. The film portrays Pennywise as a reality-distorting entity, to the point that time slows or speeds up spasmodically around him, dimensions become elastic...rarely do the audience see the same “Pennywise” twice; in almost every scene, there is something subtly or profoundly different about him, from the standard clown form that appears in the iconic “storm drain” scene to a set piece involving projected photographs in which that same form occurs in a gigantic, bestial state.
Surprsingly, the creature also appears in a variety if lighting conditions, from the forgiving shadows and darkness of its lair in Derry's sewers, to full and glaring daylight; a factor that removes it from most horror film monsters of its ilk, in that there's no salvation outide of darkness: it genuinely feels as though Pennywise could occur anywhere, at any time (and he often does, in one state or another). In that, Stephen King's original intention of structuring a story around an entire town that's haunted certainly holds some sway here.
That said, a greater focus on that concept would have been most welcome. This is not a fault of the film, rather of its source material, and a matter of personal taste: it would have been fascinating and potentially elevating to see Pennywise's influence upon Derry and its people in more widespread fashion, rather than obliquely or as a result of commentary from the main cast. A few set pieces scattered here and there demonstrating the peculiar blindness and passivity that the creature evokes in the people around it, especially regarding the disappearance of children, would have helped to sell the concept and make it a little more concrete.
Likewise, a little more elaboration on the history of the town; on the apparent “cycles” in which Pennywise feeds and hibernates, might have helped to buld up the entity as an ancient and universal threat.
There is also, arguably, too great a reliance on jump scares, which are extremely pervasive throughout the film. In most instances, this would have been enough to dilute it significantly in my eyes. However, said jump scares are generally not only fantastically executed but serve a purpose regarding the story and mythology: whilst they are certainly intended to make the audience scream and spill their pop-corn, they are also deliberately designed by Pennywise to evoke fear in its victims; the abstract essence upon which it parasitically feeds. As such, the jump scares can be forgiven, to a certain degree; they are part and parcel of the creature's repertoire, and are most certainly not the most pervasive form of fright that the film relies on:
Slow burning atmosphere are essential to its set pieces, which the film orchestrates beautifully, marrying to a peculiar species of bizarre absurdity, the ostensible innocence of Pennywise's circus motif married to morbidity and monstrosity in a manner that is quite unsettling.
The film most certainly has more than a dollop of Stranger Things about it in terms of its style, structure and general ethos; a characteristic that becomes curious given that, like Stranger Things, IT is set in the 1980s and that Stranger Things deliberately evokes the styles and natures of both cinema and literature from that era (of which IT is a significant component). There's a peculiar phenomena of historical and cultural revolution in the almost incestuous relationship the two projects share: Stranger Things, a show that attempts to evoke the 1980s, which is informed by and ram packed with references to Stephen King's work, among others, is now evoked or reflected in a present day adaptation of one of those key works, which itself also attempts to evoke or refer to certain conventions in 1980s cinema and storytelling (the ensemble cast not only consists of archetypes you'll find in everything from Stand By Me to The Goonies, but dynamically derives from storytelling coventions of the era). It's an oddly incestuous family tree, that twists and twines upon and mates with itself, but also lends the film a certain patina reminiscent of similar, effects-driven extravaganzas that have long since enshrined themselves in cinema history (the aforementioned Poltergiest being the clearest example).
IT does not follow what might be considered standard horror film rhythms; in tone, in structure, in character, it more closely resembles a 1980s adventure film, married to some genuinely distressing and horrific imagery and set pieces. The characters, whilst all immediately recognisable and fairly narrow archetypes, all have place and function within the narrative, all of them have their moments to shine. The kids who comprise “The Losers Club” are unfailingly endearing, personal favourites consisting of the obscenity-spewing, razor-witted Richie Tozier, who has some of the most uproariously funny moments in the entire film (and the film is genuinely funny, for all of its horror stylings) and Beverly Marsh, whose quiet endurance in the face of atrocities both abstruse and domestic are endearing and powerful (though reducing her to “the damsel in distress” in the film's climax might well be considered a misstep).
Beyond any critical examination I can provide, this is the first purported “horror film” I've genuinely and unambiguously enjoyed at the cinema in over a decade (the last specimen being Neil Marshall's masterful The Descent). I experienced a visceral, bubbling joy throughout, that made its run time feel like nothing at all, and faintly melancholic when it was all over, the credits rolled and the lights went up.
IT is not going to redefine horror cinema; it is not a revolution. All of its beats are familiar, all of its scares and images and characters are well, well known.
But...it is keenly aware of this, and runs with it; a pleasant walk down a well trodden road, a breath of the sweetest, most sustaining air, given the decades worth of raw sewerage horror fans have been obliged to wade through.
Now comes the difficult part; the second half of the story and its conclusion; arguably the weakest elements of the book, and certainly the most laborious portions of the original TV adaptation (largely owing to a cast that lack all of the charm and wit of their child counterparts, but also to the story simply running out of steam). The second half of IT has its work cut out, requiring far more in the way of adaptation to make it viable, but also to pay off what has been established in this superb first half effectively.
Then there's the ending. That ending, which I sincerely hope the film does away with altogether (echoes of the muppet spider at the TV series climax still haunt me to this day, but for all the wrong reasons).
But, in the meantime, we can look foreard to all that IT spawns and opens the way, being one of the first commercially successful horror films in many, many years.
The Conjuring was a fossil of a concept when it originally hit cinemas. Not only that, but it's a roadmap of every "haunted house," "possession" story you care to name.
Already seen the Exorcist, the original Amittyville Horror, Poltergeist, the Haunting et al?; Then you've already seen this film, and already seen it done a million times more competently and a million times more interestingly.
The fact that the best mainstream cinematic markets can boast in terms of horror right now is a spin off of this singularly lazy, unoriginal, conservative, pandering franchise is absolutely damning.
The fact that the best mainstream cinematic markets can boast in terms of horror right now is a spin off of this singularly lazy, unoriginal, conservative, pandering franchise is absolutely damning.
There's so much good work out there that has never been rendered on screen before; so many situations and creatures and atrocities that we haven't yet been exposed to in that medium. Flip open a random collection of horror short stories published during the last ten years, and I guarantee you will find subject matter you've never seen on the big screen before. Take a look at the art of H.R. Giger or Francisco de Goya, Jacek Yerka or any one of a thousand others, and you will find the same: images that suggest wider story; mythology beyond the canvas, that has never been rendered in film form.
It is not that the material does not exist; there's actually a surfeit of it: so much to play with, so many ideas and concepts and images that could make fantastic fodder for cinema.
Rather, it's that studios are so terrified of producing material that might alienate potential demographics (which horror will always do at its very best), they automatically favour the familiar, the weary, the known quanitities; stories that have been told again and again and again, over and over and over, such that even audiences who don't have much truck with horror know them inside out.
It's pandering, it's corrosive to what the genre can do, at its highest and most ideal (i.e. shunt audiences out of their comfort zones, placing them in contexts and states of suggestion whereby they are obliged to transgress beyond certain bounds of consideration and experience) and it is VERY bad news for those of us who operate in it to any particular degree, as these are the wretchedly LOW standards audiences are going to come to expect. It's a state of affairs that necessarily cultivates meekness in the audience; a milksop quality in which they expect and demand their horror to be comforting and conciliatory rather than unexpected and transgressive.
And to be unexpected and transgressive is what horror is for. If audiences can get up and walk away from any piece of media that describes itself as such, without feeling distressed or disturbed to some degree, than how can it legitimately do so? In what way does it warrant being classified as "horror" at all?
We need to be braver, we need to be more incisive and to have more self respect as audiences, not to mention more respect for our audiences if we happen to be creators of material.
And we need to stop paying to see decided-by-board-meeting, written-by-committee, edited-by-test-audience swill like this, that is about as transgressive and legitimately horrifying as a piece of lightly browned toast.
Well, spatter me in raw, red and wet surprise. Who in their right minds would have thought this would work? Adaptations of video game franchises to screen -or any other format- have a nasty tendency to disappoint at best; usually either too far from the source material to warrant sharing its name or so slavish they murder themselves in the effort to recreate it verbatim.
The announcement of Netflix's adaptation of Konami's classic Castlevania franchise into an animated TV series certainly intrigued initially, if only for its strangeness and near absurdity: whilst the franchise continues to this day in various different forms, most recognise it as a 2D, side-scrolling platformer with a gothic horror bent, from a time when stories in video games could be consigned to half a page in instruction booklets. Whilst Castlevania certainly has a number of rich seams of mythology to draw on, cohering them into something recognisable as the video game and not just another weary vampire anime was always going to be a daunting task.
More than anything, curiosity is what made me sit down to watch the first instalment.
They got it right. Very, very right indeed; not in the sense that the series serves as a recreation of the video games, rather that the creators have somehow struck that fine balance between paying enough homage to them as to be recognisably part of their universe, whilst simultaneously elaborating upon that universe sufficiently to make the show its own entity.
Opening on the eponymous structure itself, eminently recognisable to anyone who's played any of the games as the architecturally impossible, non-euclidian castle that is Dracula's lair; an insanely elaborate edifice far, far removed from classic depictions that dominate written fiction and cinema, the show immediately impresses with its design and atmosphere. A stunningly rendered, foreboding structure, insane in its gothicism, looking as though parts of it float without anchor to the rest, others resembling the interiors of warped clocks or shattered sea shells, it's an arresting image, and one that pervades the entire show.
Dracula himself is also a surprise; threatening, malevolent, but also patient, charming and sympathetic, at least initially; a take on the character that neither the games nor the fiction from which they derive provide, closer to the love-lorn monster of Francis Ford Copolla's 1992 adaptation than the unambiguous hellspawn of the original novel. Quiet, poised, charming; a monster, certainly but one not without thought or conscience.
This incarnation of the classic myth establishes that, whilst there are certain synchronicities with those that have gone before, both the iconic vampire and the world in which he occurs are removed from what most would recognise: this is not, for example, the familiar Transylvania of the original novel and the majority of its film adaptations; rather, this Dracula occurs in the semi-fictional Wallachia; a pseudo-European nation, seemingly composed of various smaller territories all of which are named after places that fans of both classic Dracula lore and the video game series will recognise. Likewise, it doesn't appear to be set in any particular time period; Dracula's castle itself, as in the video games, simultaneously gothic and science fiction in composition, its interior boasting as much in the way of technology as it does gargoyles, sepulchres, tapestries etc. Whilst the series doesn't delve too deep into Dracula's background, there's certainly an abiding suggestion that he is a timeless, immortal entity whose scope and intelligence transcend humanity's so as to render him alien to them. Dracula actively removes himself from previous incarnations of the character by describing the nature of his castle; apparently an “engine” that can move through time and space at his will.
The first few scenes also establish how strongly characterised even the supporting or incidental cast are; whereas in most incarnations of the myth, the woman who will eventually become Lisa Tepes, Dracula's wife, would have been a victim to establish Dracula's heinousness and monstrosity, here, she's a head-strong, intelligent and wilful woman who not only survives her initial meeting with the vampiric count but charms him with her humanity; a woman of reason and science who seeks to break the stranglehold of superstition and religiously proscribed ignorance that blights Wallachia.
The series, wasting no time, given its limited run, fast forwards some years from this point, to the ritualistic burning of Lisa at the church's behest for the “crime” of witchcraft.
Economy of storytelling and establishment of character is all important here, as the show is extremely short, given the density of back mythology and range of characters it attempts to convey, and it does so with remarkable impact, Lisa herself barely on screen for more than ten minutes, from the moment of her introduction to the point of her death, but becoming the fulcrum upon which the entire show turns: her death serves to establish the hideous corruption of the church that dominates Wallachia, the lust for power that pervades its upper echelons, but also the factor that drives Dracula -who has been “wandering as a man” at his wife's behest- so deep into grief and misanthropy that he unleashes all Hell upon humanity.
Fans of the game might find this curious for an opening episode, as, although we do meet franchise favourite characters such as Alucard, Dracula and Lisa's son, there's not a sigh or suggestion of the Belmonts, who tradtionally have been the player characters in most Castlevania games, until episode 2. That said, the show utilises what chance it has to establish the rules and dynamics of its universe beautifully, very little stated outright; much left to implication and visual cues, raw atmosphere and emotion the core of its appeal, the dynamics between the characters natural, immediate and complex, the powers at work within its world established without redundancy.
As for protagonist Trevor Belmont, his characterisation may come as something of a surprise to fans of the franchise; far from the dauntless hero of the video games, Trevor is outcast and disgraced, the Belmonts themselves a family whose excommunication by the church has driven them to dereliction. We first find Trevor drunk and near pennilless in a village bar, begging for drinks, stinking to high Heaven, getting into bar fights with the locals, where he demonstrates something of the capacities that made his family celebrated monster hunters, but not enough to keep him from disgrace. Like many of the characters in this series, he's ambiguous at best; a sardonic, vagrant man who seems to only care about where the next drink is coming from, drawn into the conflicts between Dracula's hordes and the church by circumstance and accident, though glimmers of the man he might be do start to show through the accrual of disgrace.
Funny, eloquent and bitter, Trevor is a surprising take on a character who could have been easily two dimensional and dully heroic, forced into defending people he doesn't particularly like, and who are so sheepish in their desperation and blind faith they almost end up murdering him at the church's behest at various intervals.
Regarding the church, some veiwers might be alienated by the show's portrayal of religion: there is no subtlety or nuance, here: the church -which, whilst not specifically named as the Catholic church, is this world's equivalent thereof in almost every respect- is an unambiguous force for harm in this world; not only is it the self-serving misogyny and cruelty of the church that brings Dracula's wrath upon the land, but it is the church that seeks to capitalise on the situation to secure its powerbase, turning the people against whatever scapegoats prove convenient so as to further secure their authority, which, inevitably, brings them into conflict with Trevor Belmont and his allies.
Interestingly, the vein of misanthropy that runs throughout also lends the show a certain moral ambiguity; whilst Trevor and those who eventually fall in line with him are portrayed as the heroes of the piece, the weakness, sheep-like naivety and scapegoating tribalism of most of the people they encounter, not to mention the manifold atrocities committed by the church, has the effect of making the viewer -at least in my case- side almost entirely with Dracula. As Dracula himself points out, the species demonstrates again and again that it is worthy of no better; he is merely wiping the slate clean, hastening the demise and damnation it will inevitably bring upon itself.
The show is also surprisingly true to its horror roots, despite being based on a franchise that made its name when video gaming in the West was aimed squarely at younger demographics; full to brimming with blood, gore and dismembered body parts; images of demons tearing apart men, women and children, devouring babes...the Hell that Dracula unleashes is quite literal; elemental evil made manifest in the world, and therefore all of the very worst he can visit upon humanity is rendered here, without conscience or ambiguity. Do not think that, like many shows of its ilk, children or women or the elderly are somehow involate; there are no innocents, as Dracula himself proclaims, in the depths of his grief, and so, the show provides none: only deeper and deeper atrocities, escalating situations of pain and grief and despair.
It's an interesting note to go forward on, these four episodes largely serving as an extended pilot episode to establish the back mythology, principle players and dynamics of the story. In that, it leaves the viewer somwhat unsatisfied, as it feels as though it ends just as the action picks up pace, but this is entirely intentional, ensuring that a significant number will be clamouring for when the show hauls itself from the circles of Hell once more and wreaks havoc on the living.
Short, violent, surprisingly sophisticated, grimly charming; arguably a candidate for the most successful video-game-to-screen adaptation ever attempted.
Returning to something once loved after a long absence...often not the most positive of experiences. Be it a film, a book, a work of art; a lover, there's a tendency for change to alter perception but also what one demands and desires from those experiences, rendering any attempt to recreate old states of mind and emotion redundant; self-corrosive by nature.
Exquisite Corpse was one of many, many works through which I survived my late teens and early -to-mid twenties. Without its like, I wouldn't be here now; social anxiety, insomnia, depression...one or all would have claimed me, existing inside my own skull becoming too tortuous to bear. In their darkness, their frequent nihilism, misanthropy; their passion and poetry and characters as lost and confused and unhappy as I was, I found some avenue of expression, a way of articulating to myself what was wrong, but also what I might take joy in, if I only had the urgency of appetite to step outside of myself and find it.
Exquisite Corpse was one of many read and re-read again obsessively, on buses to and from university, at night in bed, in cafes and bars whilst lectures I probably should have attended passed me by.
I fell in love with its characters in ways I found impossible with most in my waking life; characters my affection for I still find strange and disturbing; universally broken, ambiguous, powerfully amoral people, from casual drug dealers to murderously jealous lovers, from caring but unconsciously bigoted parents to cannibal, necrophile serial killers...all presented as equal parts of the stew of humanity, the book notably amoral in terms of its framing and lack of judgement; it neither loves nor hates its characters, demonstrating profound affection for them all, in its own peculiar way, revelling in memories of lost love and sexual pleasure as much as it does the visceral, sadistic joy of a serial killer's eviscerations, a necrophage's repastes.
That factor was a revelation for me; that fiction does not need to heap judgement on its characters; to sermonise its readers, but can take unambiguous joy in their company, no matter how ostensibly loathsome, how morally absent their behaviours might be.
The joyous wantoness of it, the abandon it revels in, combined with a sweet sincerity, mercifully bereft of sentiment...characters who are beautiful and loathsome and attractive and repulsive by intervals and all at the same time. It's a shuddering and orgasmic sensation, to realise that you are attracted to characters who, in waking life, would perhaps inspire intrigue through their extremity, but also repulsion in terms of their appetites and behaviour. Serial killers, cannibals, necrophiles; drug-addicts and adulterers, all dimensions of human experience are explored here, in terms of not only the most explicit acts but also emotion; the book cultivates a sincere obsession with extreme states and conditions, placing its reader both in the position of sadist and victim; of murderer and murdered, treating no one with more or less affection than the other.
As a timid, withdrawn, socially anxious gay boy in a barely-man's skin, Exquisite Corpse gave vent and expression to drives and inclinations I did not know existed; allowing me to walk in the skins of entities who are reptilian in their confidence, who are shimmering and beautiful in their strangeness, but also things of grotesque appetite and morbid obsession; who express their adoration of other human beings (and make no mistake; these characters are profoundly and explicitly human, no matter what metaphors you might draw to describe their states of mind) via mutilations; with knives and scalpels, with saws and hooks and chains and teeth.
The kindred-souled killers of this book -Andrew Compton and Jay Byrne, both of whom act as composites of various “real life” serial killers, including Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer, respectively- are explored in the most intimate detail from the first instance; as human beings first and foremost, as “serial killers” not even second or third; whilst those appetites dominate and define to certain degrees, they are also complete and coherent characters in their own rights, from Compton's faintly prissy British sensibilities; his refinement and artistry, to Byrne's explosive penchant for grotesque theatrics, the far more overt sculptures and works of art he carves from his victims. Both exhibit a common characteristic of intense and unambiguous love for those they butcher; a desire to consume and control that they can express in no other fashion. As such, the scenes of murder and butchery are intermingled with the agonisingly erotic, the two co-mingling until they are difficult to discern. The reader is invited into their worlds, to feel as they feel, to hunger as they hunger, to love as they love; an invitation at least as seductive as any vampire or incubus might offer, albeit shorn of those entity's mythological trappings. The urge to be with such characters, even knowing with a reader's divine eye who and what they are, what they would do if they got their hands on you, is a strangely enticing and shuddering realisation; arousing parts of the reader's self that they may not have acknowledged before.
Nor are the less extreme characters any less charming; from lost and lissome Tran, a Vietnamese teen only just feeling his way through his own appetites and inclinations, to embittered and broken Lucas Ransom, the man responsible for Tran's awakening, his former lover, now abandoned, shattered by the loss, slowly succumbing to recently diagonsed HIV...all are genuinely wonderful to be around, in all of their ambiguity, amorality; their contradictions and esctasies and despairs...barring Tran, who is as close to innocent as anyone or anything in this book gets, all are men who destroy what they love; who cannot help but be corrosive; Lucas with his barely concealed anger at the world, his general misanthropy, that, as Tran himself asserts, was in full swing long before their break up and the diagonosis that spurred it, Byrne and Compton through the expressions that love drives them to. Whilst Lucas could be said to be somewhat more stable than these two, there is some genuine overlap in terms of the way they perceive the world and humanity, that allows him to realise them for what they are, whereas Tran remains blithely and wilfully ignorant.
Their interactions; the coincidences and circumstances that string them together, drawing them into one another's lives...the bloody theatrics that result...all heart-achingly compelling, all described from a deeply sensual, fleshy perspective that renders every setting and experience as a sensory painting; lurid, lingering strokes of scent and taste and texture scar every page, allowing the reader to smell and taste as the characters do; to share in their love making, sickness and atrocity in a manner that is beguiling, emotionally exhausting, but addictive; the book is a poorly healed wound, picked at and picked at, coaxed to bleed again and again, until any hope of healing becomes absurd.
Returning to it in recent weeks, after so long an absence; after transformations and changes, the anxious, affrighted youth who first discovered it long since slaughtered, cooled, picked clean by whatever scavengers had a mind on his meat...a little like meeting an old lover, old betrayals stirring, as well as old pleasures.
A delirious reunion, finding far more to appreciate in it, now that it is no longer necessary; that anxiety and depression and divorcement from my fellow queers no longer makes their company in fiction essential to sanity: something to revel in, in every bleak, nihilistic, sensual particular, where even the most hideous and discomfitting of sensations become toothsome, where the most monstrous in humanity is celebrated.
As intense and passionate an affair as I remember, but one that operates on new and deeper dimensions, now that we're both older, and have learned a little of the world and one another.
Make no mistake, Exquisite Corpse knows its audience; it speaks to a very specific sub-set of readers whilst deliberately alienating -and outright insulting- others; many will find its universal sensualism, its celebration of the most intimate morbidity, alienating, if not entirely atrocious; others will find the close focus on LGBTQ characters far outside their realms of experience, and therefore somewhat foreign or frictionless.
For those the book casts its “come-to-bed” eyes at from the shadows, very little will sing as bitter-sweetly, or prove quite so generous in its affections.
Exquisite Corpse can be purchased here.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.