Further to my musings about the nature of horror, as a literary genre, as evidenced at the recently announced and fabulously conducted Aurealis Awards in Brisbane, the judges’ reports are now up at the awards site. I’m still grappling with the horror content of the winning novel, I confess. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the bush, but I don’t share the sense of menace supposedly posed by the landscape in Red Queen at all. And I wasn’t aware of the characters reacting that way. Why would country boys respond like that? The only thing they were frightened of in the Australian bush was other people — in this case, plague carriers. I think it’s very cool that a book like this can nudge ahead of a field with comparatively quite strong horror tropes; it certainly broadens the horizon. Anyway, food for thought, and I’ll continue to digest. (I certainly concur with other comments in this report, though not all.) (My musings shouldn’t detract in any way from the decision, by the way, nor the fact that Red Queen is a solid debut novel with plenty to recommend it; that’s not the purpose of this blog. I write ‘horror’ stories, call them what you will. I’m always interested to know what other people think of as horror.)
Archive for January, 2010
In Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a professional traveller. He’s got negotiating airports down to a fine art as he closes in on his key goal in life: to be one of the elite travellers to clock 10 million frequent flyer miles. In this goal, he is aided by his job, flying around the globe but chiefly the USA as a hired gun, firing employees for gutless bosses. He also sidelines in presenting talks about his way of living life, known as the empty backpack: Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham doesn’t believe in weighing himself down with possessions nor responsibilities, applying that philosophy to relationships, even family. And yet he can show remarkable understanding, if not compassion, for the victims of corporate downsizing he faces every day.
It is a well-rendered story, the casting spot-on: Vera Farmiga as his love interest gobbled up the screen, and Anna Kendrick fitted her suit as ingenue and foil perfectly.
The movie has a lot to say about family and humanity, and hits emotional buttons without using a sledgehammer. The ending is sublime, and I’m still not sure to what extent Bingham’s journey has been altered. Has he learnt something or is it simply too late for him to make the most of his lesson?
Maybe it’s simply a case of what goes up, must come down…
As someone who loves travel, and has recently battled the burden of an accumulation of possessions, I found much to appreciate in this tale. Life is a balancing act, somewhere between being happy on the ground and being light enough to fly. And happiness, this film tells us in no uncertain terms, is best enjoyed when shared.
Brisbane’s run as host of the Aurealis Awards appears over, with the end of Fantastic Queensland’s tenure as organisers of the awards, and the likely replacement coming from down south. In that time, the awards have gone from being a drab adjunct to an insular convention to an event in their own right, with sponsorship, attendance and attention from major publishers. It’s a hell of an achievement; FQ have earned their rest.
This year’s awards ceremony was another packed event at the Judith Wright Centre and didn’t disappoint, hosted by FQ committee members, and featuring readings from seminal books published outside the awards’ timeframe. Book seller Justin Ackroyd (of Slow Glass Books) was acknowledged, and in an emotional moment, late Brisbane writer Kris Hembury’s contribution to the community was memorialised with a new award for emerging talent, awarded to artist and writer Kathleen Jennings.
The awards were also expanded to include picture books. A list of finalists and winners is here.
I was most interested in the horror finalists this year, because the breadth was large: paranormal romance, ghosts, witches, noir unicorns. And Red Queen, by HM (Honey) Brown, the one title I had not read, and the winner. It’s a good, solid debut thriller. Set in the Victorian bush, two brothers are living in isolation while a virus devastates the Earth. Into that scenario enters a woman — one with secrets that are not fully revealed until an action-packed ending. The bush, the characters, the situation are all well-drawn, and the prose is accomplished, but I found myself wondering: where’s the horror?
This is always an argument with the old horror beastie – it’s a mood, an emotion, where other genres within the speculative fiction umbrella are easier to qualify based on content. If the story is set in the future, chances are it’s science fiction. If it is otherworldly, with magic, well, it’s probably a fantasy. But horror lends itself to many stories.
Unfortunately, the judges’ reports aren’t online yet, so it’s hard to know just what it was about Red Queen that swayed them to choose this book over the other four, which to my mind are all identifiable as horror stories (menace, suspense, fear, a dark slant on what we accept as the real world). Red Queen has some suspense and a touch of the Gothic — it’s an effective thriller — but seems pale by comparison.
Andrew McGahan’s win in science fiction might offer a similar genre-bending experience, based on its synopsis, but I’ve yet to track it down to make my own opinion.
That’s the beauty of awards, I guess. They stretch our perceptions, challenge our biases, and introduce us to new stories and writers and ways of thinking about our craft and our stories.
I had no such qualms with the best young adult novel, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, a rollicking steampunk novel set in an alternative Europe at the outbreak of World War I. It follows the adventures of two teens thrust into the conflict, one English, one Austrian. There are mechanical marvels such as tanks on legs and bio-tweaked creatures such as zeppelin-like whales. Some pushed my limit of disbelief, but mostly I was able to sail along and enjoy the action and the likeable hero and heroine, and the adults around them, as they are pushed together by the vagaries of war and politics.
I hope next year’s awards provide not only a similar level of professionalism and camaraderie, but also enhance my reading list as equally.
English comedian Daniel Kitson ponders the meanings and makings of home in his production 66a Church Road: A Lament Made of Memories and Kept in Suitcases (on till January 31). It’s an interesting show, Kitson in tweed suit on a kitchen chair surrounded by suitcases, a ceramic mug at hand; a yellow lamp with shade above him, no microphone. It’s an intimate semi-circular space, the Fairfax Studio at Melbourne’s Arts Centre, and he doesn’t need a mic to reach the rear of the packed room. His monologue is interrupted by vignettes of recorded narration, each about an event that might have happened in Kitson’s eponymous flat, supported by visual aids housed in suitcases, and a piece of film illustrating the Crystal Palace section of London that he calls home. I was glad of our front-row seat, though he did make the aids available to closer scrutiny after the show.
It was a clever piece of stagecraft, but it was Kitson’s musings — remembrances — of his time at this particular address, six years in what he describes as the longest relationship of his life, that set the mood and carried the night. Self-deprecating, hirsute, lisping, he’s an interesting performer, and his insights into just what made 66a Church Road so important in his life struck particular chords here, as we continue our search for a new space to call home.
As Kitson says, a real estate agent might describe it as two bedrooms, close to the station, but what we — all of us — want in a home is ‘lovely’. We want the emotional spark, the security and eventually the familiarity. Home, he says, is memories, and while some might come from place, more often than not it is from people sharing a space, interacting with it, and taking those memories with them. The heart is where the home is, it seems.
At times funny and sarcastic, sometimes quite damning of his landlord, with moments of melancholy and nostalgia, Kitson weaves a well-paced narrative about his relationship with 66a Church Road that is entertaining and thought-provoking.
AC/DC’s Family Jewels: rock memories
While we’re in memory-lane mode, I ducked into the AC/DC exhibition at the Arts Centre after Kitson’s show. It’s an impressive display of memorabilia tracking the band’s 35-year career, with nice big screens showing clips and some small screens showing very cool archival footage. I’ve had Highway to Hell in my head all evening.
Which is probably part of the secret of the band’s continuing popularity. They know how to write a hook. I can’t help feeling that the hook is getting a little worn out these days, but the fans keep coming, and have filled two walls with good old-fashioned hard-rockin’ praise for the band.
My mate Andy introduced me to Acca Dacca back in uni, playing the Back in Black album on his record player. I remember buying it on tape in Toronto, of all places. It remains a great rock album, anthemic for some, and a testament to AC/DC’s acumen and dedication in being able to bounce back with gravel-voiced Brian Johnson so soon after the death of that wonderful imp, Bon Scott. We saw them in concert way back when, and they put on a great show. But I don’t think I’ll be fronting up when they tour Australia with their Black Ice show in February. More memories in the making for those about to rock, but I’ll keep mine in the suitcase of the past (for now).
With Daybreakers about to hit the big screens, here’s a quick round-up of other Australian vampire movies:
Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, 1974. Directed by Bruce Beresford. Stars Barry Crocker, Barry Humphreys and Donald Pleasance.
: Barry, reprising his role from The Adventures of (1972), must save Dame Edna Everage from European Count von Plasma.
Bloodlust, 1992. Directed by Jon Hewitt and Richard Wolstencroft. Stars Jane Stuart Wallace, Kelly Chapman and Robert James O’Neill. Windhover Productions. [Videorecording: VHS]
: A low-budget vampire heist flick with cult appeal (banned in the UK) in which quasi vampires encounter gangsters and religious extremists on the streets of Melbourne.
Outback Vampires, 1987. Directed by Colin Eggleston. Stars Richard Morgan, Angela Kennedy and Brett Climo. Somserset Films. [Videorecording: VHS].
: A quasi-comic take along the lines of Rocky Horror Picture Show in which three travellers find themselves hosted by vampires in an isolated mansion near a decrepit outback town.
Queen of the Damned, 2002. Directed by Michael Rymer. Stars Aaliyah and Stuart Townsend. Los Angeles: Warner. [Videorecording: DVD].
: An American movie adapting two Anne Rice books, The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. Shot in Victoria (substituting for the US and UK) with numerous Australians in the supporting cast. (My account of being an extra on the film is here.)
Thirst, 1979, directed by Roy Hardy. Stars Chantal Contouri and Shirley Cameron. FG Films. [Videorecording: DVD, Umbrella].
: The descendant of Elizabeth Bathory is seduced by a blood-drinking cult using brainwashing techniques, causing hallucinatory footage.
This list of movies is taken from a survey I made of Australian vampire stories published before 2007. It’s comprehensive but not complete. Additions are welcome.
The story is excellent. The prose is delightful, told in first person from the point of view of Micah, a teenager in New York City. Her dad is black and her mother white French. She’s a loner at school who takes delight in running through the streets and especially Central Park; she’s very good at running, she tells us. But her real skill is lying. And there’s the rub.
Larbalestier has taken the notion of the unreliable narrator and stuck it right out there, in big red letters in the case of the Australian cover (the covers in the US caused quite a stir due to the foolish attempt of the publisher to feature a white face on the cover when the narrator is black – a lie too far: read about the covers at Justine’s blog) (side note: how many writers get 167 comments on a blog post? wicked!).
The book is broken into three parts, each one promising to tell even more of the truth, and each one correcting statements that have gone before. The event that triggers the story is the death of one of the students at the school. It is the fulcrum: the slices of narrative are told as before or after this key event, with a few background notes thrown in (in exactly the right place). The fact that the boy is dead appears true. The rest is pretty much up for grabs: Micah’s relationship with him, her relationship with her family and their background, an illness that defines how her family treats her and, in part, why Micah is the way she (maybe) is. It’s all seen through the lens of a practised liar.
Even though I knew I was being lied to, but not knowing when or in which way, the prose — the voice — sucked me in and I found the book compelling. Little truths used to enhance big lies, revised, revisited, compounded, revealed. At story’s end, I really don’t know what to believe. In fact, Micah challenges me in those last pages; even if I had worked out what I reckoned the truth was, or even what I wanted to believe it was, she’s poking her tongue at me, saying, You sure about that?
No, I’m not sure about it. And that’s what’s bugging me. I want to be able to call up some newspaper files and see what the recorded truth is. I want to know what the truth of Micah’s situation is, there at the end: I’m happy to not be sure about the actuality of the journey, but I’d like to be sure about the destination. Would a second, more attentive reading, result in more surety, or would it just compound the frustration?
Liar is a gorgeous teenage mystery. That much is true.
Emilie Autumn is heading for Australia for what is reportedly her first Antipodean tour – reason to celebrate for those who like their piano and violin served with lesbian pantomime, burlesque, circus and a good dollop of Victoriana, amongst other things.
I caught her act in San Francisco in October 09 and found it a hell of a lot of fun. EA’s Opheliac (there are several versions of the 2CD title, with catchy songs such as Dead is the New Alive, Liar and I Want My Innocence Back) has been a best-seller at Australia’s Ground Under Productions store, qualifying her as a bit of a goth darling, but the crowd at the charming Great American Music Hall showed plenty of non-goth/emo/alternative folks getting into the show, or at least hanging out for the sexy stuff.
EA has inculcated a strong following not just of her own brand of musical performance, but of her sideshow as well, with each of her gal pals drawing a fan base. There was hot competition at the SF gig to lock lips with Naughty Veronica, for instance.
There was slightly too much banter for comfort at the gig I saw, but I can’t see Emilie Autumn disappointing. One word of advice: if you don’t want to be the subject of a rant, don’t yell for her to take her gear off. I’m sure the ears of the unfortunate voyeur in the audience, a girl since you asked, must still be ringing.
Autumn plays Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne in March.
Here’s a neat doco about the current tour:
In a similar vein, it’s worth pointing out that the erstwhile Amanda Palmer is hitting Australia again in February and March. Somewhat less histrionic than EA, but with a strong theatrical element thanks to the performances of the Danger Ensemble, Palmer put on one of the best shows I saw last year. Recommended.
A chum sent me to Cracked mag’s website to check out the structure of an evil empire — recommended research for thriller writers, by the way — and I got a little lost in the zany but erudite observations the writers had to make about storylines, and stuff. This section about 6 movie plots made possible by bad decisions is laugh out loud funny, often because it’s true. They saved the best for last: 28 Weeks Later and The Matrix. Read, learn and laugh!**
** WARNING: the site is highly addictive. Make your coffee first.
I finally succumbed to the allure of James Cameron’s 3D SF extravaganza Avatar, partly because of all the mixed reports about it, primarily because it was really hot here today and three hours in air-conditioning (with choc-top icecream!) was not to be sneezed at.
Don’t really want to dwell on it, the thing has been hashed around all over the net (for instance, at Talking Squid), but my quick reaction is: thank goodness for the 3D effects. I thought they were handled so very well. The depth of field is the real highlight of the format for me, rather than things popping out of the screen at you, and the scenery shots and even the live action stuff provided plenty of this kind of immersion.
And Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver were pleasures to watch, too.
Regrettably, the storyline was thin and hackneyed, the theme overly overt, the indigent aliens the same old patois of Earth tribes minus any of the nasty stuff — some kind of Jamaica meets Native America. And their tactics, even with a Marine at the helm (because you need a Great White Hunter to save you when you’re a native), woeful. Honestly, the Ewoks did better using bows and ropes against mechanised troops. And the Empire at least had a reason for staging a ground assault. Anyhow, I guess I shouldn’t knock the good old Gaia message too much; friends in the northern hemisphere are dodging blizzards while we’re dodging forest fires.
If Cameron had chopped the film back to even two thirds of its length, and used the money he’d have saved to fund some truly alien aliens and a storyline with a little more moral complexity, Avatar could really have been something.
In other words, it delivered pretty much what I expected. And the cinema was cool.
You can see the Avatar trailer here for a taste.
Another flick with some groovy special effects I saw recently was The Lovely Bones. I’d had high hopes for it, because Peter Jackson also directed Heavenly Creatures, which used special effects brilliantly to convey two girls’ fantasy world. (And, um, that little Lord of the Rings movie. All three of ‘em.)The Lovely Bones showed us images of a pre-Heaven limbo, which were striking. Largely irrelevant to the story, but striking. Sadly, this movie also left me feeling a little underwhelmed, mainly because the narrator has so little to do with the story. She’s an observer for the most part, after her death sets balls in motion, and so we’re always kept at a remove from the characters and the action. It was too sweet and had too many endings for my taste.
I’ve been excited about the forthcoming vampire flick Daybreakers for quite some time, for a couple of reasons, but primarily because it’s made in Australia, including my old hometown of Brisbane, by the Brissie boys who made Undead (an extremely effective small-budget zombie movie, with SF elements). The plot about a world overtaken by vampires sounds engaging, and it stars, alongside Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, some great local talent in Claudia Karvan, Sam Neill and Undead‘s Mungo McKay.
About.com’s Mark Harris has given Daybreakers four stars. His review is here, in which he says, “Daybreakers is a fresh and original take on vampire lore, using its genre trappings to convey an uncommonly conscious, allegorical reflection on society that touches upon class and racial conflict, the ethics of big business, politics, poverty, homelessness and the ravaging of natural resources.”
Got those bases covered, then. He also assures us there’s chompin’ and stakin’ aplenty.
According to IMDB, the movie’s due for release in Australia on January 21. Huzzah!