Books

'Monstrous Creatures': A Monstrous Love for Good Books

Jeff VanderMeer's collection contains fireworks explosions of insights into the nature of the weird and a fine introduction to a number of rather obscure writers that most fans of the fantastic likely do not know.


Monstrous Creatures

Publisher: Raw Dog Screaming
Length: 250 Pages
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
Price: $15.98
Format: Softcover
Publication Date: 2011-03
Amazon

Jeff VanderMeer is best known for his Ambergris novels but has branched out into comics, animation and experimental filmmaking. In essence, he is one of those creatives that any lover of fantasy, horror and sci fi would want to sit down and talk with about his favorite books, his influences and what shapes the fantastic landscapes of his own mind.

VanderMeer's new essay collection, Monstrous Creations, allows us to have that conversation. This is a sort of rarities and B-sides assemblage of occasional pieces by the highly prolific author, much of which has appeared before as blog posts, in the pages of the new Weird Tales, in online journals like Bookslut and even major newspapers like The Washington Post.

Collections like this from a talented writer (much like odds and ends albums from great bands) can sometimes feel like what they often are: leftovers that were never collected anywhere else because they are second-rate. VanderMeer’s collection of reflections on books and writers who deal with the monstrous is the opposite. It contains fireworks explosions of insights into the nature of the weird and a fine introduction to a number of rather obscure writers that most fans of the fantastic likely do not know.

The review essays contained in Monstrous Creatures tend to be bite-sized. You can dip in anywhere to get 800-1,000 words on art inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, reflections on the tradition of the fantastic in Prague, or how an author’s personal politics affects the shaping of a fantasy world. One of the joys of the collection is an interview with famed fantasist China Mieville whose Un Lun Dun also gets a critical, but very precise, review in the work, as well. Mieville and VanderMeer engage in a discussion of the nature of “weird fiction” that ranges from chatting about favorite books and authors to explaining why so-called “pulp” writers make florid language part of the very fabric of their narrative.

Several other items stand out for the kind of cerebral curiosity they create. “An Anvil is Not An Artichoke” is one of the best discussions of the graphic novel as a form that I have come across. VanderMeer effectively skewers the tendency to equate the graphic novel with the prose novel, which he wisely describes as coming from “a sense of wanting to be taken seriously.” He makes the case that comics are different because they can pull off conceits impossible in the prose novel, such as juxtapositions in time and space that would be “cumbersome” at best in the novel (and likely just plain confusing). Along the way he makes some controversial comments about American Born Chinese recently placing as a finalist in the YA category of the National Book Award that most readers will find deliciously provocative.

Then there are the essays that have caused my own reading list to grow from the overwhelming to the bewildering. VanderMeer has convinced me I have to spend at least a few days of my life on Catherynne M. Valente’s The Labyrinth and meet its Golden Hare with “a Bodhisattva’s face”. I also learned I need to get Steve Erickson’s Zerovilleright away, with its blending of images from LA and the film industry in the '70s and '80s into what VanderMeer calls “an American surrealism”. And that my life will be in no way meaningful if Michael Ajvaz’s The Other City doesn’t become a part of it. Certainly VanderMeer writes in this way, celebrating even as he is critiquing and making you remember why you fell in love with the written word to begin with.

Another of the more pleasurable essays is a review of hipster scribe Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy, a strange book that induces an almost hallucinatory reading experience with its ability to embody us in one of the more bizarre literary avatars. VanderMeer celebrates the author’s ability to skewer American society but disdains, rightfully, the author’s willingness to create one-dimensional characters that transform what could have been the most important satirical novel of the early 21st century into a “broad farce”.

There are a few more personal pieces that are, frankly, not as strong as the rest of the collection and feel ill-placed. “The Hanukah Bear”, for example is a wry tale about the author’s daughter that, while well crafted, won’t have much meaning for someone who picked up this collection to enjoy VanderMeer criticism. At least one of these more personal essays, dealing with the art of the novella, will probably hold some interest for aspiring writers of fiction.

Taken together, these essays constitute a kind of love letter to the reading life, as well as a Baedeker’s guide to some of the best of literary fantasy. Its not to be missed by serious fantasy lovers.

So that’s the good stuff. Unfortunately, the book is really marred by the presentation and this is, unfortunately, a case where the book will be judged by its cover. The design of the book is very unprofessional and will strike most readers as the production of a vanity press. The artwork has potential, with a great bear-like creature chomping a way on a book. Unfortunately it’s a drawing more or less buried under a brown sludge of a palette.

Worst of all, my copy has the title misspelled on the spine. I have hope that I was sent an uncorrected reviewers copy although usually that is not indicated. And even a reviewer’s copy should not have the title misspelled. This is bad, very bad.

As an author who has not always been pleased with what has happened to his books in the production process, I feel VanderMeer’s pain. Writers often have only limited control over the design of their books and I suspect that Vandermeer, a true pro, is pretty displeased with what happened here. His insightful essays deserve better treatment.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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