Fun with skulls

I’m not a macabre person by nature, but I like skulls. I’m not talking about actual human skulls, but representations: drawings, T-shirts, liquor bottles, candles, etc. Sure, it’s a cliche by now, but it’s still fun.

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(Image courtesy of Gerrard King)

Where did my affinity for skulls start? Who knows? Maybe from the image of Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull and talking to it. I always got a kick out of that when I was a kid. (Here’s a picture of Doctor Who‘s David Tennant as the moody Dane.)

Tennant Hamlet Yorick

Obviously I’m not alone. Skulls are everywhere in pop culture, and not just American culture. For instance, the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos) holiday is a festival that recognizes the dead, and similar traditions can be found throughout the world. Though the Mexicans seem to have perfected the imagery.

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My own theory: these representations of skulls are a safe way for us to reference our own mortality. We can observe it at arms’ length, poke fun at it, while still acknowledging it. Sure, some people choose to avoid anything that will remind them of death, while others seem to revel in it. For most of us, we can acknowledge it, have a laugh, and then move on.

And now I’m happy to be adding a skull to the pop-culture pantheon. My soon-to-be-released novella, House of Flies, will feature a skull on the cover. House of Flies follows Alec as he battles a fly infestation that drives him to the brink of insanity. It’s a psychological horror story about suppressed grief and the avoidance of death, hence the skull. I can’t describe how cool I thought this imagery was when my designer first showed it to me.

House of Flies

It turns out that there have been more than a few skull-themed covers. The website Science Fiction Ruminations has compiled a collection of skull covers from the recent era. Here are a few funky examples — check out the site for more.

Philip K. dick

Robert Heinlein

Harlan Ellison

 

 

The latest Doctor: older and wiser?

The BBC just released a new trailer for the latest season of their classic sci-fi hit Doctor Who, with Peter Capaldi taking the lead role. Will this older Doctor signal a shift in the writers’ approach?

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I’ve loved the reboot of Doctor Who. It’s been a thrilling ride, beginning with Christopher Eccleston as an edgy, battle-scarred Doctor, followed by David Tennant’s whimsical, haunted Doctor, and then onto Matt Smith, who brought a child-like, though deadly serious, quality to the Doctor. What all three Doctors had in common was that they looked significantly younger than Doctors of the past (I grew up watching Tom Baker — he was my first Doctor). Matt Smith, while a great actor, was in his 20s. Kind of strange for an alien who is centuries old.

The writers of Doctor Who seemed to be trending toward younger Doctors, maybe chasing a youthful audience. But then they announced that Peter Capaldi would take over for Matt Smith. While there’s much unknown about how Capaldi’s Doctor will be written — and played — he’ll definitely bring a new level of gravitas to the role.

But what will all this mean in terms of storytelling? I guess we’ll find out when Doctor Who returns in August.

In the meantime, BBC’s minute-long trailer highlighting the upcoming season includes the returning companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and the voice of one of the Doctor’s classic enemies, the Daleks. Check it out below.

 

Reinventing Lovecraft at Tor

A fresh spin brings new life to a controversial horror legend.

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Arguably, HP Lovecraft is one of the fathers of modern horror (the grandfather would probably be Edgar Allen Poe). Rhode Island native Lovecraft, who lived from 1890-1937 created a bleak, horrific mythology that was both seamless and Howard_Phillips_Lovecraftexpansive. His creatures included the now iconic Cthulhu. His monsters were both alien in origin and Earth-evolved races that rose and fell long before Homo sapiens wandered off the savannnas.

What made Lovecraft a master of horror wasn’t necessarily his prose — it was his outlook. The monsters in his world were not remotely like us. In fact, they considered us no better than we would consider a nest of ants. It’s the theme that we don’t matter one bit to the universe that makes Lovecraft so horrific.

But Lovecraft is not without controversy. Today he’s widely derided as sexist and racist. His works are criticized for their fear and revulsion of the other. His critics have a point; I’ve always been hesitant to proscribe modern mores to past characters, though I wouldn’t let them off the hook.

This controversial aspect of Lovecraft has kept him at arms length from contemporary writers, which is a shame, because once you extract his personal views, there’s much gold to be mined from his works.

Leave it to Tor.com, one of my favorite (and free) sites for the latest in modern speculative fiction. They recently published a (long) short story, The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys. The writer brilliantly uses Lovecraft’s mythos to create a new world that, while it relies heavily on Lovecraft, removes all of his detestable aspects. Instead of reviling the other, Emrys’s world is about the other.

My point? Just because a writer/artist/actor/politician is a jerk in real life doesn’t necessarily mean we have to disregard all their efforts. Emrys’s short story is proof of this.

Here’s an intro to the story:

The state took Aphra away from Innsmouth. They took her history, her home, her family, her god. They tried to take the sea. Now, years later, when she is just beginning to rebuild a life, an agent of that government intrudes on her life again, with an offer she wishes she could refuse. 

Read the whole story here at Tor.com.

And, for an interesting take on Lovecraft’s controversial elements, read this blog post from the editor at Tor.com who decided to buy Emrys’s story. It’s fascinating to watch him grapple with his own mixed feelings.

(Art copyright © 2014 by Allen Williams)

Apocalypse obsessions

Why are we so fascinated by end-of-the-world stories? It’s personal.

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Sci-fi is filled with apocalyptic stories, from asteroid flicks like Armageddon to zombie/plague movies such as 28 Days Later. And this end-of-world obsession is nothing new. Think back 2000 years ago to a book in the bible titled Revelation. What’s it about? Basically, the end of the world.

And now sci-fi themed website io9.com has a list of the most plausible ways that the world, as we know it (meaning human civilization) might end.

Their list:

1) pandemic

2) asteroid/comet impact

3) large igneous province (not a volcano, but a crack in the earth that oozes lava and toxic gases

4) climate change

5) radiation disaster, either nuclear war or a gamma ray burst from space

6) an invasive species that upsets the natural ecosystem and ruins our food supply

7) a black swan, or, something we have no way of accounting for (think The Terminator movies)

The point is we love to think about the world’s end. But why? I believe it’s because our world will truly end one day (at least on Earth). We will all die. That fact is inescapable, and it’s burdensome to think about it every day. Still, it’s there, and it seeps out into mass culture through armageddon stories.

We can’t change this fact, but at least we can have fun along the way.

 

Lukewarm Leftovers

Will The Leftovers become a TV classic? Too soon to tell, but it doesn’t look good.

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HBO’s new sci-fi-ish series The Leftovers has an intriguing, if unoriginal premise, is based on a high-profile novel, and is produced by the man behind Lost. Yet the first episode left me underwhelmed.

The set-up: two percent of the world’s population has vanished with no explanation. Three years later, the residents of Mapleton (aka Anytown, USA) struggle to move on despite the uncertainty and lingering grief.

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The story follows police chief Kevin Garvey (played excellently by Justin Theroux), who is not quite with it. He struggles to relate to his rebellious teenage daughter Jill, and his son Tom, who has fled to a mysterious commune. He butts heads with the town’s mayor, Kevin and LucyLucy Warburton, and tries to keep the peace between the townspeople and a strange cult that wears white, chain smokes, doesn’t talk, and taunts the grieving. And he may or may not be crazy.

So far, so good. Plus, The Leftovers based on a book by bestselling writer Tom Perrotta. I like it when TV shows and movies have a literary legacy (then again, as a writer, I’m biased). And, it was brought to TV by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame. Say what you will about Lost; that show is a classic in my eyes, with spectacular storytelling and gripping characterization. The Lost connection, more than anything else, had me excited for the show.

But based on the first episode I’m not confident that The Leftovers is headed for greatness. I see two main problems:

1) I fear we will never get any kind of explanation for the disappearance, and this show will become an endless grief-fest.

2) There were so many characters who we zoomed past that it was difficult to get sucked into any of their stories. Theroux’s Kevin Garvey worked well, but aside from him, I felt no real connection with the faces who passed by.

Some of the subplots were interesting. Nihilism has gripped the youth of Mapleton, as we see with Kevin’s daughter Jill. There’s a party scene that perfectly captures the sense that if anyone can suddenly vanish, what’s the point of trying?

The story following Kevin’s prodigal son Tom, who is part of some survivalist-type cult is also intriguing (though the actor is miscast. He is 29 in real life, while his “father” is 42. It shows).

And then there’s Christopher Eccleston of Doctor Who fame who plays a preacher. I’ll tune in to anything with a Doctor Who alum in it.

I’m nowhere near ready to give up on The Leftovers, though I’m somewhat pessimistic. It’s hard to NOT compare The Leftovers to Lost, but as with Lost, I fear that the writers will lose their way when it comes to the sci-fi elements.

I hope I’m wrong.

Game of Thrones meets the World Cup

While waiting impatiently for season 5 of Game of Thrones (only 10 months away!), any stories even remotely related to the show are catching my attention.

And now, in the spirit of the World cup, along come the Game of Thrones soccer uniforms, courtesy of a Spanish designer named Nerea Palacios. Read this interesting Q&A with Palacios. She says if she had to choose, she would align herself with House Lannister. Really? With Cersei?

Regardless of her taste in warring factions, she has great design taste. Take a look at a few of my favorites:

Targaryen

Martell

Night's Watch

For more Game of Thrones meets the World Cup, check out this clever article from the Washington Post that compares the warring clans of Westeros to the international rivalries of the World Cup. Over the top? Sure. But fun nonetheless.

(Images courtesy of Nerea Palacios)

Is time travel possible (for real)?

When I was young my mother was in college and she took me to one of her film studies classes. I was maybe 8 or 9, and the movie we watched was an avant garde French black-and-white flick called La Jetee, about a man from a desolate future who travels back in time and is killed. A boy watches the man die, and the boy turns out to be that man as a child (You can watch the whole movie here).

La Jetee

Since then I’ve been hooked by time travel stories. They’re a staple of sci-fi, and some of my favorites are The Terminator series, Doctor Who, SyFy channel’s Continuum, and 12 Monkeys, which was based on La Jetee.

Twelve_monkeysmpWhile time travel is an interesting fictional conceit, it’s been pretty much dismissed as an impossibility for several reasons:

1. How could it be done physically?

2. The possibility of time-destroying paradoxes — the most famous one being, what if you went back in time and accidentally killed your grandfather before your parent was conceived?

3. If time travel is possible, then why aren’t time travelers all around us?

I’ve never been convinced by number 2. Number 1 never interested me. Number 3 has always been the most persuasive.

Nevertheless, scientists are getting closer to solving the riddle presented in number 1.

According to this report, a team of Australian physicists have simulated time travel on a quantum level using particles of light. The particle “traveled” through spacetime on a closed timeline curve. This means that the particle returned to its original starting point. It did not create a new curve.

In the simulation, the particle was sent back to an earlier point in time and interacted with the original particle before returning back to the present.

Don’t ask me to explain the nitty-gritty science behind this stuff. I failed physics in college.

So, if I’m reading this correctly, time travel is theoretically possible, at least in the quantum world. Will this mean that we can one day travel through time? Probably not, but who knows?

In the meantime, I’ll keep going back, time and again, to time travel stories.

Secrets of the Ouija board

Are Ouija boards dangerous? A comprehensive article traces its history, and the answers aren’t quite conclusive.

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A Ouija board is a game that allows users to attempt to contact the spirit world. The board consists of letters and numbers. The player asks a question, and using a pointer, the spirit world will supposedly guide the pointer to letters that spell out an answer. Simple enough, right? Not really.

AlwaysMine_finalOuija boards have a bad reputation. Many consider them a gateway to evil. If this latest news report is to be believed, three young Americans in Mexico fell into convulsions after using a Ouija board (the local priest refused to perform an exorcism because none were parishioners). I used a Ouija board as an element in my horror story Always Mine, and from reader response, it struck a nerve.

But what’s the truth behind this game?

This long Smithsonian article breaks down the history of the Ouija board. It turns out that Ouija boards are a uniquely American creation. In the mid 1800s, a wave of spiritualism swept the US. People believed they could contact the spirit world, which would deliver messages. This belief dovetailed neatly with organized religion, which more or less sanctioned this practice.

Then, in the late 1800s, a canny investor caught wind of a “talking board” and formed a company to manufacture these boards.

Among the interesting facts about the Ouija board:

–The name Ouija supposedly came from the board itself.

–The US patent office approved its patent after the board revealed the patent official’s first name (proof that it worked).

–It quickly became a best-seller, marketed as both a way to contact spirits, predict the future, and as wholesome family fun. Even Norman Rockwell got into the act.

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But there was a dark side to it as well:

–One company head died after falling from a factory building, which he built based on advice from the Ouija board.

–In 1930, two women killed another based on the advice from a Ouija board.

And a quirky side:

–Writers have claimed that their works were written via Ouija board. One poet, James Merrill, won a major award for a poem that was “magnified” by his Ouija board.

So why have Ouija board become linked to evil?

Blame The Exorcist. Since that 1973 groundbreaking horror movie (which was supposedly inspired by actual events), Ouija boards lost any wholesome status they enjoyed. Following the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, Ouija boards have been denounced by religious groups and have become a staple for horror writers (guilty as charged). Interestingly, the board is still a hot seller.

The Smithsonian article delves in to the “why” of the Ouija board. In the simplest of terms, scientists believe Ouija boards tap into our unconscious mind. We may think we are talking to spirits, and in a sense, we are: our own.

But is this all there is to it? Maybe not. Check out these supposedly true scary stories of Ouija board freakiness.

To be honest, I’m not as concerned with how Ouija boards work. Don’t get me wrong: I love science. But when it comes to something like Ouija boards, I’d prefer to keep that element of scary suspense alive.