Locke & Key, Vol. 1
[Reading Challenge 2022]

Locke & Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft

by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
IDW Publishing, 2008

[ Challenge # 21: A graphic novel or comic book. ]

Finished my Three-color mythology pick, Locke & Key. This was Vol. 1 of the series, but I don’t think I’ll be going on. I was eager to read it because of the Lovecraft associations, but aside from the name of the town it’s set in, there wasn’t much of the Mythos in there. It’s more of a supernatural thriller.

A high school guidance counselor is murdered by two of his former students and his wife and children traumatized, having had to hide from the killers and then attack them on their own. One teen attacker dies while the other has his face disfigured by the murdered man’s teen son, who bloodily bashes him with a brick. Afterwards they move cross country to a old Edwardian house in Massachusetts on its own private island which was in the late father’s family. The house is called Key House and the town, Lovecraft.

The house has special keys that unlock special doors, which, when you go through them, turn you into  someone or something else, or transport you somewhere else. A demonic woman living in the wellhouse wants one or more of the keys so she can get out of her supernatural prison and cajoles the youngest child into befriending her. Meanwhile, the crazy youth who planned the father’s murder escapes from jail and travels cross-country to seek the same keys from the family. And — surprise! — he had been cajoled by the demon lady in the wellhouse as well (sorry for the pun) because she had communicated with him out of a picture of it in the murdered teacher’s house!

The artwork was OK, if not as expressionistic as I wanted, and bloodier than I wanted. Too angular and stylized for my taste. The palette of subdued browns, golds, and blues was restful, but monotonous. I would have liked it used to convey emotion. The character design of the teen killers made them look supremely goofy, and in the case of the stalking teen, unsettling. He began to remind me of Mad Magazine’s gap-toothed mascot Alfred E. Neumann. Shortly after this came into my mind, there came a page showing him sitting on the steps of the high school, which is named William Gaines Academy! Gaines being the original publisher of Mad Magazine. I appreciated the in-joke, but know also a teen reader of this (it’s made to appeal to teens and YA) wouldn’t get it.

“What? Me worry?”

I thought the story lacking. It sounds like a good story in synopsis, but just wasn’t written well. Much of the dialogue sounded two guys were joking around as they wrote it, trying to sound edgy and flip, even as the things they were writing about — grief, PTSD, guilt, the fear of forever being a victim — were serious ones. It devalued the more heartfelt parts. For example, one of the teens who killed the father mentions twice that the mother used to bend over while she was packing groceries to show him her panties. I guess the purpose of this was to show he’s a gross teen psycho who makes things up, but as far as grossness goes, it’s a cheap shot. It served no purpose except to make the writers sound flip and edgy. The story wasn’t about this yucky dude who dies early. It’s about the family and the mysterious house.

There’s another cheap shot later when the demon lady, who has escaped the well, uses one of the magic keys to change her gender to male and quips, “Time to have clothing to fit balls again.” Like…what?

I don’t recommend this despite the hype.

(More of a Lovecraft connection comes into play later on in the series, when it turns it there is a “Plain of Leng” — an extradimensional space — beneath Key House that is full of demons, who are wont to possess teens and turn them into murderers. Which brought up, for me, the way Lovecraft’s Mythos has sunk its tentacles into modern horror and fantasy… not least because it’s copyright-free.)

At the Mountains of Madness [Reading Challenge 2022]

This hooded skeletal lady had nothing at all to do with the contents of the book.

At the Mountains of Madness

by H. P. Lovecraft
Originally published 1936 in Astounding Stories

[ Challenge # 1:  Reread a book you have already read. ]

Finished my first challenge this year, H. P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. I first read it back in college some decades ago, and enjoyed it, but while I remembered the basic plot, I’d forgotten a lot of the specifics, and this time around, too, I found new things to discover.

One was how “authentic” the expedition to Antarctica reads, even today. In the research I did after I finished I discovered it’s because of Lovecraft’s life-long fascination with Antarctica and in following the exploits of its explorers. I even consulted a map to find out exactly where he placed the Mountains of Madness (and the further, even higher, Mountains of More Madness). Following the coordinates provided, there was no surprise in that the mountains and the ancient city are smack dab in the middle of the continent’s most remote sector.

Red star indicates the approximate location. Interestingly, not far from Lake Vostok, though in Lovecraft’s day that area was unexplored. I’ll add that his anecdotes about geology and continental drift also read true and shows that he did his homework.

On the other hand, one thing that did not read true was the human characters’ ease with the altitude Lovecraft describes — the mountains passes are 24,000 feet to fly over in an airplane, and the plateau beyond 20,000 feet, so as New Englanders who are not accustomed to climbing high peaks they wouldn’t be so at ease in their explorations. Neither would they hear the “strange piping” in the mountains’ passes,  because of the noise of the airplane whose engines in past times were much noisier than today. I am guessing Lovecraft never actually rode in an airplane or ascended more than a few thousand feet.

And for some reason I invented parts of the story out of thin air. Like I was so sure there was a bit where the main character and his companion encounter the Elder Things as shadows on a wall as they fumble about with human-sized matches, trying to get them to light, and indeed the smell of the struck matches is what draws the humans to that spot. But I had fabricated all of that from my faulty memory. In the book, the humans smelled gasoline, and they never actually saw the (living) Elder Things or even shadows of them. Maybe the matches bit came from some other book.

I was also surprised at how Lovecraft repeated himself over and over in the text, which I don’t think would happen in this day of word processing. But it did set the mood. That’s what the story really was, a mood piece, with the main character giving his narration in the present day while treating his past self on the doomed expedition as a puppet of sorts. It was kind of amusing, especially how often he stops the narrative and coyly hints at, but doesn’t spell out, the terrors he sees out of kindness for the reader’s sensitivity,  and gets very long-winded about it.  This Victorian trope does not work, of course, as the reader only wants more, showing a puckish sense of humor at play.

There’s more humor, too, dark humor, in the idea that the unearthed Elder Things inflict on the humans the same thing the humans were going to inflict on them — vivisection.

The narrator’s ultimate purpose in conveying all this, he makes clear to the reader, is to discourage further explorations of Antarctica, which is doomed to have the opposite effect. Who of a scientific bent could resist following up on such a momentous discovery?

Another thing that struck me about the novella is how it blended SF, horror, and fantasy. In fact, it gave the fantastic beings mentioned previously in Lovecraft’s stories a scientific underpinning. Not demystification, for Mythos beings still lurk about unseen, but an actual rooting in prehuman history, discovered with archaeological legwork.

To sum it up: Untold eons ago the Elder Things — mobile, sea-cucumber-like aliens — came to a lifeless earth, brought life to it, and ushered it along. In the course of their occupancy they built cities, fought with other interloping aliens, and used dinosaurs as beasts of burden and primitive humans as court jesters. But their civilization devolved over time, and Earth’s last ice age brought the final blow. Only the ruins of one ancient city was left, the one in Antarctica over the Mountains of Madness and frozen in its glaciers, which the narrator and his companion discover and explore after an earlier party came to ruin. Conveniently they are well versed in certain fictional occult writings mentioned elsewhere in Lovecraft’s work, and draw allusions from the city and mountains they discover to Mythos elements like the Plateau of Leng, the shoggoths, the Necronomicon, and other creatures, places, and things. Gradually, the narrator realizes the ancient roots of all this mumbo-jumbo, distorted by time and human history… by following the Elder Thing cryo-mummies who turned out to be not so dead after all.

By no means was Lovecraft’s a planned mythology, like Tolkien’s. Lovecraft did not work alone. For his Mythos he mixed up real-world occult elements, like the Mesopotamiam god Dagon, with the creations of other writers he admired, like cribbing Edgar Allan Poe’s penguin cry of “Tekeli-li!” (copyright law not existing in its present state back when Lovecraft was writing.) He also encouraged his writing friends to use his creations in their works, and borrowing from them, with permission, elements of their writing that he liked. Indeed, their circle  was like a round-robin writers’ group that existed in the early, heady days of the internet, when everything was text-based and the goal was to have fun. Lovecraft even gave his friends monikers and incorporated them into his stories, in-jokes that belie his reputation as a long-winded, racist, humorless prude.

Also unlike Tolkien, he did not take his creations at all seriously. For his fiction he treated them like Warner Brothers treated Bugs Bunny and his friends back in the day — in each cartoon they played different roles, but were always the same character with the same shtick. Yosemite Sam might be a Wild West sheriff in one  cartoon and a Medieval knight with a pet dragon in another, but he was always himself, with the same low tolerance for frustration and explosive temper. Lovecraft treated elements like the shoggoths, Cthulhu and Leng the same way. For each story, they had different roles to play, but were always the same. Leng might be a real place in At the Mountains of Madness, but in another story, it was said to be in Tibet, or Lovecraft’s imaginary Dreamworld. But the Platonic ideal of Leng was always the same: a cold, elevated, barren, cursed place.

As a story rather than a mood piece, the plot was too convenient in places, and Lovecraft telegraphed the twists ahead, though this may have been because I had read the story before. But then, for a modern reader it doesn’t take much to connect the dots between “wrecked camp, dead humans, and missing alien corpses and supplies” to “the aliens did it!” in contrast to the thick narrator who refuses to come to that conclusion but heads off in pursuit for reasons he fumbles around.

Another convenience was how the narrator deduces all of the Elder Things’ earthly history from the carvings they made on the walls of their city. Come on, now. Humans have trouble plotting history even from human  art. It was purely a plot device for Lovecraft to indulge himself and the reader in a dizzying, yet oddly familiar, tale of a civilization’s journey through time. Personally, I’d rather he left things more mysterious, as I thought I remembered from the excited blur of my first reading.

Also misremembered, by me, was the description of a shoggoth’s passage through the tunnel. In my mind I saw it pouring through like a horizontal blender in reverse — the grayish (in my mind) protoplasm of it being propelled by being sucked through its “anus” and ejected through its “mouth” to pour over its sides and move it along like a capsule in a pneumatic tube. But on this re-read, it was described as rushing like a subway train, not a reversed tornado.

(For the record, though, I’ve always found the Mi-Go the most horrifying of Lovecraft’s monsters.)

In spite of being nitpicky, I’m happy I re-read it, as I will do again at some point in the future.

Lovecraft March

City of the Elder Things, or the Plateau of Leng / Kadath in the Cold Waste

Inspired by my re-reading of At the Mountains of Madness, I declare Lovecraft March! Worldbuilding  notes, reviews, and essays to follow.

 

Worldbuilding Wednesday 3/2/22: Battle of the Gargantuas
xxxx(Syfy monster movies)

Sharktopus (top, a shark’s head walking around on tentacles) tangles it up with Whalewolf (bottom, a human-armed orca-canine hybrid)

In the 2000s and 2010s, that purveyor of quality entertainment, the SyFy channel, released over 200 original made-for-TV movies, which, given the network’s name, could only peripherally be called science fiction. Most were what was once called B-movies, variations on disasters, monsters both mythic and human-created, and horror… and often all three, with the addition of Wild West, post-apocalyptic, and sword-and-sandal settings. In other words, what might once have been broadcast on a UHF channel on some Saturday afternoon in ages past.

The prize jewel of this particular crown is, of course, Sharknado, which spawned four sequels and slew of imitators (Tsharknami and Sharkalanche, to name two.) But this post isn’t about weather/monster disasters. It’s about the monsters.

These creatures were all giant, super-charged, and malevolent toward mankind, badass beasts often combined with other badass beasts. Most were variations on sharks, dinosaurs, giant pythons, more sharks, piranhas, and crocodilians:  Dinoshark, Piranhaconda, Megapython, Gatoroid. Added elements were ice and fire, as in Ice Spiders and Fire Serpent.  Mythical creatures also made appearances, like chupacabras, hydras, dragons, kraken.

When you think about it, though, there were plenty of other creatures the producers might have chosen, yet they stuck to a limited few. Bulls are certainly big, mean, and destructive, yet no one made a Bullgator or Octobull.  There’s also a lack of Megascorpions and Centitanopedes, so I wonder what exactly the criteria was.

The most popular of these movies pitted one creature against another: Dinocroc vs. Supergator, Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf. I myself haven’t seen any of these films, though many viewer, at their most generous, call them mindless cheesy fun, and those less generous, atrocious. So I can’t attest to their quality. But I can attest to how easily they can spawn fresh, imaginary hybrids to stalk our nightmares.

 

Battle of the Gargantuas: Who will win?

Chimericane

Ultraphant

Helljaws

Crocohog

Wolversaur

Squidsquatch

Biovulture

Titanoclam

Krakensaurus

Space Gorilla

Tuskviper

Hyenadingo

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

vs.

Spiderviathan

Dinoscorpion

Cobraconda

Tyrannoboa

Moledragon

Lavawhale

Cyberwing

Grizzlyshark

The Iron Amoeba

Robo-Maw

Yetipotamus

The Piranobats

 

The Daunting Chimera

Artwork by BW Osagi

Another fine chimera, adhering to the monster’s female gender, with dragon, lion, and goat heads, dragon wings, and a snake’s tail — with hair!

Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/23/22: Chimerae

 

The Classic Chimera, a goofy-looking beast if you ask me.

Pretty much anyone with a passing knowledge of Greek mythology or fantasy gaming knows what a chimera is, right? Part lion, part goat, and part snake, embodied in this Etruscan bronze statuette. It’s a goofy-looking beast in its original form. It has a lion body (note, however, the body looks more canine than leonine), a goat’s head — which is said to breathe fire — embedded in the middle of its back, and a tail that is a snake. The snake’s head bites the goat’s horn, and the lion head seems to be crying out in pain, though this may be due to the fact it was discovered in pieces and re-assembled incorrectly. Still, I like the metaphor of a creature at perpetual war with itself.

In myth, the monster was born of monsters, and, interestingly, was a she.  In the story of Bellerophon and Pegasus Bellerophon kills her on the orders of the king of Lycia, who never dreamed the hero would survive the mission. But the chimera’s real legacy was in art.  Popular as a decoration for vases, plates, and figurines,  its usage extended into Roman times.

In modern times chimera as a word has become a way to reference any kind of mixed-up-creature, and in the biology community, a creature with more than one set of DNA, for example, this cat. A type of ghost shark is also named a chimera.

But, for  fantasy writers, readers, and gamers, the chimera will always be the tripartite  creature. When the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons was released in the late 1970s, the chimera featured prominently as one of the higher-level monsters for characters to conquer. The original D&D chimera stuck to the appearance of the statue, but later came another version, the Greater Chimera, that had three heads side-by-side on the creature’s front: dragon, lion, and goat, plus dragon wings, and this later, sexier version seems to have become the standard for modern depictions.

There are other depictions, of course, which get rid of that awkward goat’s head on the back. Some artists put the lion and goat head together on the same neck, while others eliminate the goat entirely, giving the lion head goat horns to hint at this identity. Often the heads are swapped around, tigers, eagles, and sharks being some others I’ve seen. But for all of them, at least lately, the idea of three creatures melded together remains, and the idea of three different heads.

Arctic Chimera – walrus, ice dragon, polar bear

Forest Chimera – antelope, lion, wolf

Ocean Chimera – dolphin, moray eel, anglerfish, kraken

Classic Chimera as a furry (Ricard Rivera)

Gamer John Crowley has come up with variations on the chimera at his site the wanderingalchemist.com in the posts here, here, and here.  In the same spirit, here are some randomgenned chimeras whose descriptions wrote themselves.

 

Different kinds of chimerae

Shumyra: This variant of the classic chimera has the heads of a bull, a tiger, and a cobra. Its body is that of a tiger but it has the scaled belly and tail of a cobra. This variant enjoys swimming and lives in tropical or semi-tropical areas. It is slightly larger than, but also slower, than its classic brethren and its cobra bite is, of course, poisonous. Shumyra are known to make pests of themselves preying on humanoid settlements. They are proud and entitled creatures and collect treasure like dragons.

Chaffera: Also a tropical chimera variant, this creature has the heads of a deer, a jaguar, and a python, with the python’s long tail. Its body is that of the jaguar but its leg and feet are of a deer. Chaffera prefer to strangle with their python tail in most situations. They are a shy creature, but charmed by music, especially flute music.

Chrymeera: The chrymeera is found in mountains and high hills. Its heads are those of a mountain goat, a gray wolf, and a salamander. The salamander head can breathe fire and also makes the monster impervious to fire. It is a reclusive creature, much smaller than the classic chimera, but able to leap nimbly up and down high cliffs on its mountain goat hooves, while its lupine hindquarters propel it from behind. It seems to feed on hares, pikas, and marmots. Its wolf head tends to be the dominant one and may make it more amenable to human taming.

Ephemera: This awe-inspiring creature has the heads of a unicorn, a white lion, and an equally white snake, all with golden eyes. Its body is that of the lion, but with the high legs of a horse. Unlike most chimerae, it has a good alignment. It is a curious, confidant creature endowed with simple magical powers, among them invisibility and healing. Though it has no wings, it can fly by galloping through the air. It has an air of wonderment around it, in that all those who see it will gape and marvel and forget whatever they were doing at the moment. Ephemera usually feed only with their unicorn head on plant matter. Every once in a while, they feel the urge to eat meat, which is a source of embarrassment for them, and they will try to do so in private. A good way to blackmail an ephemera is to catch one doing so.

Gimhida: The gimidha swells in dark forests. Its heads are those of a ram, a leopard, and a basilisk. The basilisk head can turn beings into stone with a peck from its beak, but the gimhida only uses it as a last resort on a more powerful enemy, as it has to come too close. Usually it will bite and claw. It has a leopard’s body, but its feet and giant claws are those of the basilisk. A magical aura of horrendous despair surrounds this creature and even its appearance looks shadowed, as if it lives under a dark cloud. Gimidha eat anything a leopard eats.

 

Women of The Witcher

 

Adda the White

Cosplayer, photographer, and stylist Milligan Vick of Deviantart has created some mesmerizing portraits of The Witcher’s female characters, like the one of Adda the White at the top. Adda, for those who don’t remember Season 1 on Netflix, is the king’s daughter who becomes a striga, a vampirelike supernatural being whom Geralt must defeat, and cure. This portrait (not based on the TV show) seems to show her knowledge that she is changing in how she is hovering protectively over her meat, which is raw. There is tension in her face, and confusion, but she cuts into it anyway. I love the contrast of light and dark here, the red hair with red lips, dress, and gloves, while the meat is a different shade of pinkish-red. I mistook it at first for an oil painting, it’s that smooth and composed. The unadorned white plate, the silver utensils, the lonely pork chop, are Magritte-like in their simplicity and sense of surrealism, and that’s why I like it.

Below, portraits of two more lovelies.

Yennefer of Vengerberg

Princess Cirilla (Ciri)

 

Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/16/22: The Witcher

Which Witcher? Hot, hairy,  and handsome, in an open-collar shirt, or grizzled, scarred, and dressed for business?

 

Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher series (reviewed by me here) has a naming convention for characters that is all over the map, yet taken as a whole, also unlike any Western fantasy I’ve read. There are names derived from French (Jacques), Italian (Vilgefortz), English folklore and fairy tales (Triss Merigold, Mousesack), Latin (Artorius), German (Reidrich, Sabrina) as well as Polish (Adda, Laszlo, Sigismund, Vesemir). The Elder language the mages speak for their spells, and that of the Elves, is based on ancient Celtish; for what else would an elf speak?

Despite the hodgepodge, the majority of names do stick out as sounding Polish or Eastern European, and I’ve chosen that model for the randomgennings here.

 

Proper names from The Witcher universe

FEMALE

Agánthe

Anra

Calaia

Cerina

Enetta

Esfor

Eyanthe

Falra

Gietta

Hadilla

Ílyrina

Jiranthe

Karoila

Kirra

Korina

Lédrua

Líra

Mádirina

Maiafa

Mimischina

Nadilla

Nalanthe

Odetta

Odilla

Pakarla

Patraia

Ramothy

Rowetti

Saia

Shaldra

Timirlana

Tissanthe

Yenenthe

Yerilla

Zaltina

MALE

Afel

Besemir

Dald Thyir

Esiel

Ethrald

Etir

Ildreld

Ithalt

Jirvyal Dugal

Kachnir

Kald Wialter

Mert Curcichel

Munalt

Obralt

Obrywald

Olithert

Othan

Othert

Ráfemal

Ralt

Rythralt

Shald Vael

Sysgert

Thibert

Threchald

Trevanthier

Trubel

Uriald

Usal

Vebremalt

Vercithal

Vestaujier

Weillan

Ygafort

Ythiert

The Witcher, Season 1 and 2 [Review]

henry cavill as The Witcher

Witcher Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) ponders how the candles of the chandelier behind him all burn at exactly the same rate and intensity.

The Witcher, based on the writings of Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski, debuted on Netflix in 2019 and has remained one of its top draws ever since. It’s not hard to see why. The series is full of action, adventure, and romance, tempered with a wry, dry, typically Polish sense of humor.

The Netflix show is actually the latest media production in a string of many that began 35 years ago when Andrzej Sapkowski wrote his first Witcher story. His creation has  gone on to spawn six novels, several collections of short stories, two collections of Witcher short fiction spinoffs written by other Polish and Ukrainian authors, two comic series, one Polish, one American; and a Polish language TV series. Clearly it’s a phenomenon the West has missed out on, save for a series of successful video games which began release in 2007.

Like the HBO version of Game of Thrones, The Witcher is fantasy for adults. There’s nudity and sex, gore, violence, and moral ambiguity; but instead of pre-Tudor England we’re in Eastern Europe, specifically Poland and the areas around Poland – Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania. There’s an ornate heaviness in the sets, costumes, and depictions of castles, while the commoner’s wooden cottages are scrubbed clean with painted designs on the walls and curtains at the windows. This world is civilized, more cultured. Yet superstition abounds – a very Balkan type of superstition, based on life debts, fear of magic and monsters, and xenophobia, for Elves are this world’s undercaste.

Continue reading

Worldbuilding Wednesday 2/9/22: Let’s Talk About -stan

Central Asian warrior princess

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s a slew of new countries came into being that ended  with -stan: Uzbekistan, Kazahkstan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. This Central Asian quintet joins two existing -stans, Pakistan and Afghanistan, bringing the total to seven. They are known collectively as “The Stans.”

And what does -stan, or more precisely, -istan, mean, anyway? Well, it’s from the Persian language, meaning nothing more than “land.” So, Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks, Kazahkstan the land of the Kazahks, and so on.

By this definition, there are plenty of other -stan locales that never made it to full country status, such as Baluchistan (which gave its name to the world’s largest land mammal, the Baluchitherium), Nurastan, Dagustan, Uyghuristan (better known as Xinjiang) and Turkestan, which often serves as a catch-all name for the entire Central Asian region. The Persians also refer to Western countries by -stan suffixes. India was Hindustan, Hungary Majarestan, etc.

Need a fantasy Central Asian kingdom of your own?

 

Central Asian Nations

Anghirastan

Amaristan

Aprastan

Azbakastan

Bachuqstan

Byrustan

Chakrastan

Dadjistan

Hachustan

Janchustan

Kaligstan

Kimezstan

Kurkushtan

Lakapstan

Lingustan

Lozistan

Mundustan

Pellistan

Pungustan

Qibiristan

Rhaabistan

Rondistan

Sarzistan

Szyrgistan

Tandestan

Tzubakistan

Ursustan

Usakistan

Uzwachustan

Vindestan

Yaschestan

Zundistan