Send in the Clowns: Todd Phillips’s Joker

Coulrophobia. A fear of clowns. It’s kind of an ironic fear when you consider the idea that clowns are humanity’s way of making fun of its own mortality. For the longest time, I actually thought…

Source: Send in the Clowns: Todd Phillips’s Joker

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What Is Really Challenging: Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi

The Rise Of Skywalker, supposedly the last of the mainline Star Wars saga is coming soon. And even so, people are still talking about Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi. Even me. There is something about the eighth Star Wars film, and Rian Johnson’s own responses to fans that I’ve tried to explain, and put into words.

I mean, I even wrote an article for Sequart on The Last Jedi itself, and while it isn’t perfect, I knew the moment I saw it, it was going to become a classic: if only because of how controversial it was, how final it felt, and jarring, and experimental in some ways, while being conventional in others.

Then, I came across this article from IndieWire. It’s title is practically a thesis statement, and it doesn’t hide what it is: Rian Johnson Says Catering to Fans, Rather Than Challenging Them, Is a ‘Mistake.’ This title, combined with the subheading “I want to be shocked, I want to be surprised, I want to be thrown off-guard,” left me with quite a few strong thoughts on the matter, and I want to attempt to communicate them as clearly, and lucidly — as both a writer with critical background, and as a Star Wars fan myself — as much as possible.

A lot of what I am going to write is something that has already been written, or talked about, before. After reading the article, which derives its points from an interview Johnson made, and then states that some critics apparently believe The Rise of Skywalker is “disrespectful” to Johnson, his work, and the originality of what he was attempting to do, I was reminded of something.

In 2015, I took took classes in Ty Templeton’s Comic Book Bootcamp. And, in those classes, we learned many lessons not just about comics writing, but writing, world-building, and even franchise-making and supporting fandoms around it. It wasn’t completely indepth, but there was something Ty mentioned about “supporting a fan club.” Let me try to explain it as best I can recall.

Everyone likes to feel like they belong somewhere. Everyone, to some extent, also likes to feel smart, and informed, and included. Ty taught us about creating emblems, and certain recurring phrases, and the value of “always bringing a character home” each time for each new story or episode: figuratively, and literally. I don’t think about forty or so years, I need to explain how that concept particularly applies to a franchise like Star Wars. But there is something in particular about this that I want to make clear.

A lot of the time, fans will speculate on a work, or details within it. And, sometimes, they will come up with an idea of where something is going to go … and they will actually be either close to it — or completely right. And especially in this Age of Information, these speculations and their conclusions are more accessible and widespread: along with the means of more rapid and open communication.

There is nothing quite like figuring something out, and realizing that you were right. And, while some fans or audience members might be like Rian Johnson and say something like: “‘oh, okay,’ it might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me,” there is another contingent that will feel pleased, and enlightened. They might even feel a sense of belonging to that fan club. Of course, you can take that too far as well into the pedantic and condescending, but I think every story has a common source: especially human stories like mythology. Like Star Wars.

Back in ancient times, if you look at Greece, you have plays being created. And everyone knew about Oedipus Rex, Agamemnon, Lysistrata and the like from oral tales but they still watched the plays. The point I’m trying to make is that even if someone does predict a story, or they want something to happen, you can still give it to them … in the way that you want to give it to them. You focus on the details, on the buildup, the pacing of the narrative, on especially the character development. You don’t do it to give the fans what they want when and how they want it. Likewise, you don’t change the story, or the way something is going to happen just to “subvert expectations.” You do it to make a point, or make an interesting twist: to focus on the story itself.

There are a lot of interesting elements in The Last Jedi that I appreciate, such as Johnson’s critique of the cycle of violence in Star Wars itself. There is a bit of preaching and condescension, and the mess that is Canto Bight but there is also the meditations on the Force itself, the stop motion illustrating an ecosystem and circle of life and death, some words about self-actualization, and even a metaphysical look on how to break out of the cycle. Then you have the milking creature, and Luke Skywalker not learning anything after the lessons of thirty years ago when dealing with his nephew.

But all the Star Wars films are flawed in some way. I mean, I don’t even have to go into the Prequels now, do I? Or even some of the questionable decisions about clunkily revamping character origins like Ventress’ or Maul’s in The Clone Wars cartoons.

I can see, for instance, that The Last Jedi was meant to be an Empire Strikes Back as Johnson put it in the article. You have a story and even advertising build up to make you think A New Hope was going to lead to the enemy being defeated in the next film, but then you get that bombshell: only Johnson attempted to do this by subverting tropes and themes in a very heavy-handed, but clever manner.

The problem is, to imagine Yoda stating this point as I did in my other article, cleverness does not always for good storytelling make. And sometimes what some might see as challenging, can also be perceived as condescending.

This is especially true when you consider all the build up and hype towards Rey’s origins, Snoke’s and then … nothing. It’s supposed to show that those expectations are irrelevant and it is the current adventure and the concepts of overcoming war and hatred that matter more, as well as friendship and love being ascendant. But they are particularly abstract concepts. So is the cycle between good and evil, of course, but then we have the other issue.

What changed as a result of The Last Jedi?

Did the concept of war get challenged? Did the Light and the Dark Sides of the Force get scrutinized and be seen beyond a simple binary good verses evil dichotomy? Did Rey and Kylo Ren realize they didn’t have to be enemies and go into a Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis Hegelian dialectic: two opposites meeting to make something new, and challenging for the next film. According to the Indiewire article, as I mentioned critics are annoyed that Johnson’s innovations are seemingly being downplayed to “pander” to fan and fandom expectations for Star Wars in The Rise of Skywalker. However, it was Johnson himself who kept Rey and Kylo Ren on different sides. Rey is still on the Light Side. Kylo Ren is still motivated by the Dark Side. Perhaps they are challenged, as fans are supposedly challenged, but in the end their resolve is more or less the same: except for the regret in Kylo, which doesn’t matter as he continues on from that point until, presumably, the next movie by J.J. Abrams.

I could make a compelling case that Johnson uses the aesthetic or the seeming of innovation and subversion, but really just makes opposite, contrary trope choices that ultimately lead right back to the status quo. And this seeming of change or challenge, doesn’t really change anything. And it wouldn’t if it were simply a standalone film with its own story, but the issue is that it is supposed to be part of a nine film saga arc in which seven of those films said something else entirely. It’s jarring. And it does sometimes feel like he is subverting tropes to make it look clever, instead of actually focusing on character development and working with what came before, and making something cohesive after.

It reminds me of those creators that imitated the style and edginess of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s comics works, but didn’t really look at the content or spirit of them. I’m also reminded of something EA Games apparently did where, apparently, when some fans figured out a major plot point in the Mass Effect series, the creators went out of the way to change it so as not to seem “unoriginal” or to have people guess their story, and not want to play their game. But they forgot the lesson: that the fandom, in solving that puzzle, would only make it more interesting because even they couldn’t realize all of the details, and it’s one thing to know something — like an ancient Greek tragic story — but it is a whole other thing to see it play out, even with that knowledge or good guessing.

I don’t know. Sometimes, I think that Rian Johnson in how he has dealt with the criticism of his work can be as condescending as some of the fans who also have a tremendous sense of self-entitlement.

Either way, it is all right to like The Last Jedi or this Sequel Trilogy. It is also valid to dislike it. But I do think that if it is ridiculous to think one is insulting a fandom over the change in a film in a forty year old franchise, it is just as silly to believe a writer is being slighted when something else is being written in a different tone from his own work: which is what he did to begin with, and even then he ultimately went right back to where it all started despite that finality of a child with a broom sweeping away the past, readying for the next words to be shown on a screen.

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I’m Not Locked In Here With You: Todd Phillips’ Joker

So I wrote an article for Joker on Sequart a little while ago now, but while they eventually will post it, I have some other more personal thoughts on some of the themes in the film: mainly why I like it, and why I relate to it.

I tend to call this Joker, or this earlier phase of him, the Arthur Fleck Joker. He isn’t the same as the Mark Hamill, the Heath Ledger, the Jack Nicholson, or the foolish Cesar Romero depictions. He isn’t even the comics Joker, any of them. This is the phase, the dress rehearsal, before the agent of chaos that we are going to get. I’ve always been fascinated, you see, with watching something in the process of being created, or creating itself. I find the best kinds of art, or artists, are those that you can see are constantly working on themselves. Mark Twain has a quote about knowing the details behind the creation of a miracle, and how it can take away from the simple joys of just experiencing it, yet I am someone who likes to — to borrow a phrase from Neil Gaiman — see the work backstage, and how it adds to the performance that we are given.

This Joker is a moment of realization in progress, of living two different lies at least, and then finding out who he actually is. That is what I took away from this film. Let me be clear about a few things though: I do not romanticize the Joker that kills people for amusement, or is an abuser. The one in this film is very different from those other depictions, though there are some similarities with regards to his more destructive actions.

But I really, like I said, love the process. We see Arthur wearing the clown makeup when he is at his gig helping a shop sell its wares, but a man wearing a clown costume does not a Joker make. Even the nervous, involuntary laughter doesn’t make the Joker. Not even the killing of those abusive rich men out of self-preservation, or the one out of a sense of street justice makes for the Clown Prince of Crime. The flirtation with this image, the sensuality of it in the restroom with blood-splattered on his face, his wig and clown nose gone, and his ragged elemental features at that point are a start. But he’s still Arthur. He still wants to be loved. He still wants to be a comedian, and to stop hurting.

Even the white makeup he has on when he kills the person who betrayed him isn’t quite there yet, and this after he discovers what he is — where he came from, how he was betrayed far worse before — and preparing for what he is going to do. He wants revenge, but he also wants the pain to stop: for the joke that is his life to finally end. That is the tipping point.

I would even say by the time he makes it to Murray’s show — to the man he used to look up as a father-figure before he publicly humiliated his non-neurotypical behaviour on television for laughs, and didn’t think anything of it — and when he decides to kill him instead of himself on national television, he’s still not Joker. But what started as practice in that restroom, and then choreograph when he danced down those flights of stairs, and then self-awareness by putting on a clown mask to hide in the discontent of Gotham’s lower class that made his actions against the rich into a memetic force, followed by one great bellow of selfish vengeance on a man and system that failed him … ends when he gets out of that car crash, and he uses the blood coming out of him to make a bloody smile on the costume whose lipstick had already faded. It was cheap and artificial. Now, the blood makes that twisted smile real.

Watchmen is bandied about a lot in terms of comics references. Hell, it even made it into the title of this Blog post. I don’t need it to sell Joker that’s already sold its own soul to the Devil of our collective imagination. But there is this idea in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ work with the vigilante Rorschach. He starts out with a troubled past of childhood abuse as well, but that doesn’t make him Rorschach. It doesn’t make him Rorschach when Kitty Genovese is brutally raped and murdered publicly and her neighbours do nothing, and he vows to become a masked hero to stop other such incidents. He’s still just Walter Kovacs, an abused child taken to foster care, wearing the mask of Rorschach. Rorschach is still his alter-ego.

It isn’t until he hunts for a kidnapped baby, and finds out that the kidnapper fed the child to his dogs, and he burns the man alive that he isn’t Walter Kovacs anymore. He realizes he is Rorschach. And when he is hiding in plain sight as that Prophet of Doom in the background, Rorschach wears Walter Kovacs as his mask, just as the Joker wears Arthur Fleck’s face as a mask at the end of Todd Phillips’ film.

We can go into how in Star Wars Darth Sidious was the real self of the man who wore the mask of the politician Palpatine, or how Batman’s secret identity is Bruce Wayne — though that last is highly debatable, though appropriate given that this article deals a great deal with his arch-nemesis. What I’m trying to illustrate is that none of these alter-egos becoming true identities happened overnight, or had always been their true selves. Parts of these personalities, these culmination of experiences, were there but there were other circumstances, and reactions to those events that precipitated the processes that made these happen.

That is how I understand a lot of what I’ve been going through this particular year. I don’t romanticize these characters. I think there are aspects of them, as archetypes, that are really fascinating and relatable, but they are not heroes. The Joker is not a good person, even if there are parts of him — of this one, and even his “burn everything bad to the ground” or “watch this flawed, disgusting world burn” attitude that my Id can sympathize with.

I guess the best way to describe it is that 2019 has been a different year for me. I’ve new people. I’ve had some new experiences, or explored them in a whole other way. I’ve been angry, and scared, and frustrated. I’ve delved into that fear. I’ve confronted it. I’ve pushed my comfort zone. I’ve worn my makeup and my masks. But I’ve realized that identities, especially those that we associate with things and events, are fluid. They change. And trauma in particular is a massive force behind some of those changes. There are ways to explore that power — trauma — in controlled environments with calculation and experimentation. Writing is one of those outlets, and the confines of the imagination. But sometimes it’s also trading stories and interactions with like-minded people. Sometimes it’s putting old selves behind you. Sometimes it’s realizing you are angry, and accepting it, and knowing that you are changing.

I think the most painful thing is trying to hold onto the person that you were, with all those experiences — good or bad — to stay in the past, because you will never be that person again. You will keep changing. That’s part of your nature. Some core tenets will remain the same, of course. But you will not have the same experiences again. We hold on out of fear, or resentment, or a genuine sense of overwhelming purposelessness. Where do we go from here? What do we do? And why is it I have this inclination to know where I can go, or what I can do, but not quite get there before … something? Right?

This year, I felt myself let go of a lot of attachments and realize some things are gone. And that they, most likely, needed to be gone. I still have to deal with more of these due to logistics, but I now understand that I don’t feel the same about them as I did. I don’t feel the way I used to, because very naturally I’m no longer that person. And that’s not a bad thing. I can still feel sad about it, even angry, but it doesn’t change anything beyond whatever it is I do next.

I’ve been busy, confronting those parts, dealing with the anxiety. I have fascinating friends and explorations. And I’m lucky. I felt my old self beginning to wane, to fade, but to also be subsumed by my new choices, and activities. It’s sad and you mourn it, but there is no other way to go on: even if you do need to remember to pace yourself. Imagine being Arthur Fleck, though, and realizing that your old self never really existed to begin with. Maybe it’s not that different, as nothing is permanent. It’s not a science, but I will argue with you that it can be art.

And that’s what I’m making. Even if I don’t write as much as I used to, or stay indoors as much in front of my computer, I am still expressing myself, and thus making art. I might have been wearing masks, but they are closer to being who I am now than where I was. And even despite that, masks aren’t false things. They are organic and we are all different people in different situations.

The New Year is coming up. I actually had myself made up as the Joker a while ago, and this great, rumbling laugh came from my chest. I’ve dressed as the Crow, but as people like to quote from that movie and perhaps even the comic from which it came “it can’t rain all the time.” The Crow isn’t supposed to smile, apparently. But I laugh. I love to laugh. But I also like to be between states, and know how the meat is made, or destroyed. I like to hide in plain sight, and plan things out. But sometimes, when I can get past the fear I just go with it accordingly.

I’ve actually liked 2019. It’s so far been a good, but challenging year. I will keep shedding more of the old as I go on, and it won’t be easy. But we all know that “laughter” has an extra letter in front of it sometimes. And it isn’t so much that I’m trapped here with my challenges.

It’s that they are trapped here with me. And, when I can, I intend to have my fun.

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On the Twilight of Alan Moore’s Superheroes: A Thank You

This was originally going to be a series of Tweets to Leah Moore, who is awesome, but after sitting down and thinking about it a little while longer, I decided to write something a little more substantial about this.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve really loved many of Alan Moore’s works, both his comics writing, and his prose. There’s been a lot of talk lately about superheroes, about whether or not the superhero genre in film — as discussed at length by Martin Scorsese, and in which I touch on in what will soon be my own article on Todd Phillips’ Joker — or in the comics medium, as has been covered by Alan Moore, at length, are legitimate.

I’ve had many thoughts about the comics medium, and the superhero genre, as well as Alan Moore’s words and works. I haven’t always agreed with everything he’s said, or did, but I will never deny the fact that his writing is genius, with layers of meaning and nuance, that informed my creativity and imagination personally, and through other favourite creators that I’ve also followed.

Leah Moore, the co-creator of Albion, Wild Girl, and Conspiracy of Ravens with her collaborator and husband John Reppion, recently published her own perspective on her father Alan Moore’s views on superheroes in comics and their presence in film and pop culture, as well his recent stance on voting in the British elections against Brexit, and the turmoil of it engulfing the entire nation of England.

I don’t have much to add to her words except for the anecdotes that really stick out at me from her words. I think that experiences she has, and had, with him: about his glee in finding old superhero comics, the creased pages of well-read and loved comic books he had on hand, the geeky nature of him as he took his knowledge of the geopolitical — of complex and third dimensional world-building — and applied it to the icons and inspirations of his childhood, giving those stories his tone and his voice, and all the little moments where he would share snippets of his work with her, clever lines that he was proud of, all the winks and nudges that we saw faintly in his captions and dialogue but she got to see personally and first-hand through his genuine love of not only the comics medium and what it could potentially continue to become, but for also the superhero characters that he left employment for to pursue a financially-unsure career in comics with which to work.

And it paid off. As a creator, he took a chance and with hard work and skill he not only made a living off his art, but he thrived. He achieved a dream. He took a series of risks, and I won’t pretend to understand the full implication of what that meant for him personally, or his family beyond anything I’ve read about in George Khoury’s The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, and The Mindscape of Alan Moore documentary. But it cost him too.

Imagine that you are working with something you love, because you don’t see yourself doing anything else. You literally, integrally, can’t. Not forever. You work on your projects and you keep doing so, to the point where you are ill, to the point where it hurts, and you still keep going. And then, through a series of bureaucratic and legalistic convolutions, incompetence, and the greed of others you find yourself spending more time trying to survive than making the things that you want. Imagine getting blamed for plagiarizing something that you made ages before the complaint, or being told you will get your work reverted back to you only for it to never go out of print and have the company you worked for own it. Think about how you think you could have interacted with this company — or companies — and believed you came to a settlement, that you finally got this unpleasantness out of the way, and you are even thinking about adding more to the good work you did for them only for them to fuck you over further. And then, try looking back at what you once loved, that you made into a career, and being positive about it.

Of course, that is just my understanding of it and I know there are many other complexities involved in there. I’m not even saying that Alan Moore is always right, and like I said I don’t always agree with him. Superheroes, for instance, are like M. Night Shyamalan pointed out in what would become his Unbreakable film series, our modern society’s version of gods and demigods: beings of great power and different morality, but a bridge between the mortal and the immortality, between humanity and Nature, between hopes and stories. They have captivated us, these stories of heroes who do good, and terrible things, larger than life: our dreams and nightmares put into words, and panels, and dialogue balloons. It’s only the nineteenth century aesthetic of the strong man and the cape and tights have that altered the iconography, just as once auras of power around gods were symbolized by horns.

And Alan Moore knew this. He still does, even now. He explored what power would do to the psychology of an individual, and while it wasn’t always pleasant, he still kept some common decency, and the dare to dream big in many of his narratives. Unfortunately, many others looking at great comics works — like those displaying the innovation of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — only saw the dark and gritty, the grimdark, and believed that edginess was all that made these stories truly great.

Julian Darius, of Sequart, called this “comics revisionism”:  this deconstruction of the superhero to display the problematic and questionable elements of the superhero dream, while also keeping their humanity, characterization, and world-building at the forefront. Moore’s work had affected the superhero comics genre, and still does: even if a lot of the works after him — both in comics and film adaptations — only superficially borrow from that legacy.

I can talk about all of this, all day, really. But there are two things that really stick me about this discussion right now. The first is something Martin Scorsese said about film, which can be applied to stories. In his New York Times opinion piece I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema, Let Me Explain, with regards to his era of film-making he states “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

Aside from the fact that Scorsese goes on to talk about the danger of attempting to mass-manufacture a particular kind of story over and again, recycling it without innovation or introspection, his previous words are fascinating given how this is especially what Alan Moore — and some others inspired by him — actually brought to superhero characters and stories. Moore did, in fact, in the medium of comics bring spiritual revelation and contradictory, complex natures to superhero characters, and did his part to transform the medium itself by drawing into it not just continuity but a sense of literary canon — of sophistication — and a modernist voice that may well have not been there before. Seriously, Scorsese’s words above could have easily applied to moments in Watchmen, in V For Vendetta, in Promethea, and other works created by Moore. But I won’t go into them.

Instead, there is the other point I want to make. It is looking at Leah Moore’s words, about a man who liked to play with superheroes, who wanted to make meaningful stories out of them, who believed in the potential of an art-form, and in recent times claims that they are just the adolescent fantasies of nostalgic adults yearning for childhood, the tools of corrupt systems wanting to make a buck and rip-off their artist employees, and a medium that barely has any change or representation. I’m not going to debate the merits of these statements, though I disagree with the last point given how there are many forms of representation in comics now — though in DC and Marvel that’s still a give or take situation — but I just want to draw the attention that Leah Moore has brought to it: that someone who loved superheroes can’t stand them anymore, or at the very least if you go by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, has a wry cynicism tempered by a wistful remembrance of more idealistic days long gone.

It’s sad. I’ve had my differences with Alan Moore’s work a few times, one time especially during Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century where I stopped reading him for a while. But it was never because of indifference, or because somehow I felt I was better than him. It was because it hurt. It hurt when he came in, and changed something to be grimmer, but more real. Because it struck me in a place where I was still holding onto hope. But it never occurred to me that he must have dealt with something similar, a few times already. This creator, who wove together entire worlds, who interviews almost self-derisively seemed to channel Frederic Wertham’s views on comics superheroes when looking back on his work, was saying something about these stories, and his art.

And I can’t help but wonder, like Leah Moore, if it would have been different if he had been treated better during his time writing in the industry. If we would have seen a Minutemen of his own creation, or more. But at the same time, these terrible experiences did get him to create other works. I love his Providence series, for instance, and I still want to get back into reading Jerusalem.

I guess I am getting older as well. I faced my Century a few times. I never got as far as Alan Moore did in my own creative work, and I don’t think at this point I ever will. In the end, I’m just glad. I’m glad I got to be some small part of his creation, like so many others, in just reading his work: in just interacting with it even in this tiny way. I’m also glad he is making his own works in other media now, such as his films. And when I came back to him, when he created that limited run in Crossed +100 and then Providence, it was like coming home to that older intellectual friend you don’t always agree with, but you feel enriched by spending that time together. And I never forget that it was his work, and those works that he informed, that got me back into comics to begin with: that saved me from completely dismissing them as juvenalia and relics of an immature childhood. Comics are so much more that. And I have creators like Alan Moore to thank for it.

All I can do now is keep following my own dreams, and the old stories, wherever they are go. After all, as a blue, naked man once said to the world’s most intelligent, if not wise, in another time, another life. “Nothing ever ends.”

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Aelith

Written and performed around last Halloween — or the Season of the Dead — by my bard in our Fifth Edition D&D game. 

There is a forlorn beauty within the White Pines,
filled with crumbling husks of majesty, and broken lines.
Now home to beasts, and creatures of many kinds,
it once claimed manses housing High Elven minds.

There were palatial homes almost grown from stone,
of which fabled mounds and toppled pillars are now their bone.
Numerous farms were once tiled by ancients under the trees,
but they, too these Elven farmers’ secrets, were worn away by
Time’s frigid Northern breeze.
This Kingdom, this Empire, spanned from North to West,
this flowering of High Elven civilization at its very best.

Now, there are only broken columns, and archway outlines reaching
for the sky,
as though these few still remain to beseech, and as of the world … why.
Why did this ageless, noble nation die?

This question is the breadth and width,
of the ancient tragedy of the Temple Warden,
of the High Elven warrior …
Aelith.

Long ago, before the Elves of the White Pines,
the Mountain Dwarves of Mordimeer came out from their mines,
their numbers coming forward, going forth,
to contest the High Elven nation’s claim in the North.
Perhaps it was for the sake of power, or for gold,
that the Dwarves, then, decided to be bold,
or due to eternal grudges that never go away,
for these two long-lived nations set out to, each other, mutually slay.

But in shining raiment, and majestic power,
the High Elves still maintained their longest hour,
until, from the East, came Chaos, came the Orcish Horde, to ravage
and scour.

In massive numbers, the Green-Skins invaded both races first,
but the Elven nation was attacked the worst.
Long-lived and once sedate the Elves had perhaps been too used to peace,
with the Dwarven presence just skirmishes at least,
but spread too thin they didn’t hope to stand the Hordes that never ceased.

Many died, and others hid,
while still more Elves to their Empire farewell they bid,
as they left to form other nations, other cities
into eventual decline they slid.

But that is not what Aelith did.

Tall, and lean, and slender,
stone could not, in good conscience, render
the high cheekbones of her face, the haughtiness of her mien,
her keen slivered eyes that many a battle, more than others of her kind,
had seen.
Her red-gold tresses shone with a beauty that was hard,
overshadowing a gaze that never, once, let down its guard.

Perhaps, once, Aelith had a family, a lover, or a spouse,
but what is known is that towards the end of her nation,
she had been married only to the War God’s House.
Aelith, Temple Warden, had guarded the Warrior Shrine
for centuries, and years,
so when the Orcish invasion came, she was not overcome by fears.

It may be that she warned her people of this day,
that their indolent lives, their complacency would not eternal stay.
But if so, very few in Aelith’s words believed,
and because of this, perhaps, their doom they did receive.

Yet, that fateful day, that fateful time, it was lives that Aelith sought to retrieve.
She and her soldiers, the War God’s children, many orc lives would reave.

With slender fingers calloused by ancient wars, and hands that grappled with her God’s demands,
Aelith, keen-eyed of ken, took her bow of moon-silver, and shot down many a marauder again,
and again.
It’s said that when she killed, her voice sang out, perfect and metallic, silvery with prayer,
as she dedicated the lives of her people’s killers to her God, as their slayer.

But deep down, perhaps Aelith sometimes wondered,
was this wrath inside her, this glory for battle, grief for her people,
or what the War God thundered?
Was it, then, that something in her, a deep surety, a steadfast belief had
gone and, and truly sundered?
For with the others, the Gods of Peace and Pax had fled,
leaving behind only Bloodlust, and inevitable Dread.
And, perhaps, something else in their stead.

Perhaps, something deeper than sentiment, and eternal myth,
had always burned in the breast of Aelith.

Aelith, whatever else, had bought her people time,
but this is not where ends the tale of this warrior archer, farsighted,
in her prime.
It would be easy, to say, that she did indeed — with her warriors — earn
a noble death,
amassing orcish skulls right down to her final breath.

Outsiders continued to terrorize her home, and ruin her lands,
and she still yet fought on, in vain, as her soldiers — too few now —
died under the invaders’ — these defilers’ — hands.

Perhaps, as these final defenders, these Elven warriors made hunters
of thinking beasts,
which blood and viscera became their only feasts,
began to starve and fall without food or game,
the fire within Aelith’s soul fed another kind of flame.
Hungry as they fought, she and her soldiers became
far past the point of any reason for it to tame
Until, driven to very few, to the corners of their Shrine at last,
a desperate spell, an evil curse, they decided upon themselves to cast.

They turned the pool beneath the Shrine, into an abattoir, the heart of a blood-smith,
for their leader to forge, there, the Doom of Aelith.
Perhaps it was their own lives that they sacrificed, through blood-stained orgies,
and profane rites,
though orcish prisoners, long-broken, would have also sufficed.

And, with this, as she tried to control their fate,
all they had left — Aelith and her soldiers — was the power of hate.

Thus with a terrible ken, that made her song more discordant, more keening,
Aelith sought — in her Shrine — to keep on dreaming
for Death their lives never to sever,
as they would defend their Temple, their Home, and fight the Enemy, in eternal war …
Forever.

And when Aelith finally died, and her blood — with others — ran like a crimson river,
it is said that her God — her spouse — by request or curse, bound her soul into her constant companion,
her moon-silver quiver.

It is said, even now, that Aelith still exists,
she and her soldiers now spectres, ghosts, and angry dead whose war continues to persist.
And, if once a year, in the Season of the Dead, lost roads in dirt and thinned veils form anew,
and outsiders find their way to the site of the Temple, of the foundations they would flee
if they only knew,
then the spirits will lure them, as they had their age-old prey,
and take them, to feed their restless bones, where they now lay.

And Aelith, a far cry from her glory,
ancient, and hideous, and far from sorry,
now a withered, and unbearable sight,
will take advantage of the outsider’s plight:
even, and especially if they too possess an Elven light.
Perhaps, long after her kin ignored what she had foretold,
for them and all, her heart had long since grown cold.

Her hunger, now, is that for souls,
as she can, and cause, for others what Death ultimately tolls.
All so she can feed herself, and almost look again alive,
to be young in corpse-light, and terrible for her ageless war
to inevitably survive.
Armed with spectral arrows, from her constant bow, that rot the body,
and assault the mind
this, and her violence, is all of her that is left behind.

For her war song now is the Song of the Banshee, the House of the Dead,
a charnel battle where all should fear to tread.

Who, now, would go so far to guard their home, their way of life, in her stead?
Or keep their lust for vengeance, for violence, perpetually fed?
Or who would dare live the life that she had led?

Who else can’t see that a Banshee’s Song
is only a war that has gone — or will happen before — far too long?

The Elven roads are gone now, beautiful manses and temples long since buried,
treasures plundered, and millennia quarried
over bones, that could have been ageless — but died young, and unmarried?
Even so, in the shadow of the White Pines, in the pall of the Fall, there are few terrestrial, even fewer viridian sith,
that will outlast the keen keening lust and hunger of the Temple Warden, the Warrior,
the Banshee Archer.
Aelith.

(c) Matthew Kirshenblatt, 2018.

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Hymn to Nautilae

Written and performed by my bard during our D&D Fifth Edition Session. 

If you listen to the chiming laugh of a brook in the wood, 
and follow where the Moon-drake winds,
you will find a cavern, and an ancient bridge, 
with a rock visited by many kinds.

Elves and Minotaurs, Satyrs and Beastmen, 
and all manner of other fey,
they’ve come, like you, to the shimmering disc above, 
where her calm waters hold sway. 

There, she comes to you, smooth and cool,
from an offering dropped into her pool.
Silver given to a silvery sheen,
the Faerie comes with intention keen,
her magic strong enough to let her glean
your wishes that are yet to be seen. 

She’s like a Nereid, a Nymph, a watery Queen,
the finest that you’ve ever seen. 
Beautiful lady, ending with a tail,
to this vision, this humble bard sings this modest hail.

Her silken hair from her head crests out in waves,
like the glimmering veins of the world hidden in secret caves.
Rocks crumble, fires die, and winds move on,
but water, Terra-life’s blood moving, is never gone.

If you are wise, and your manners are fine,
with silver presented she may grant you a blessing undine. 
For with her touch, an axe might shine,
a staff made clear of evil’s brine, 
a hallowed bow’s soul no longer confined, 
each item freed from age or taint or temporal decline.

Yet above all, if you believe only one word of mine,
the Faerie holds the guidance of the watery line.
She offers a map under temples long grass,
sunken cities that mortals can no longer pass, 
traveling down roots where no stories tell,
or to a place of lost souls through an ancient well
where hope, thought long gone, may still yet dwell. 

Such are the mysteries you might find, where rock and waters play,
if you pay homage to the underlake of night and day,
for silver to a silvered tongue is yet the best way,
to court the favour of the Good Queen, Nautilae. 

(c) Matthew Kirshenblatt, 2019.

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And What They Found There

Look down the wondrous structure,
Where the chequer’d shadows play;
See the scattered groups increasing,
Wending up the dômed way. 
— E. Leathes, Fragments From the Crystal Palace

It’s like one of Mr. Dodgson’s stories, but so much worse.

Ida Codswell continues running, hiding behind a corner with her lamp. How her light has lasted this long is beyond her understanding. The fuel should have run out a long time ago. Even the Elekiter … even the light device design that Edison and other men stole from her when she worked at the Holborn Viaduct power station wouldn’t have lasted this long, or in these conditions.

Everything is grey and cold in this place of winding stairs. Nothing is smooth, but scratched and faded like the old daguerreotypes left in a drawer after a child’s funeral. Staircases wind up, and down, and lead to nowhere. Ida knows this. Sometimes, it feels like she has walked on all of those steps.

She had ripped away her small, grey petticoats a while ago while fleeing the shadows, and trying to keep up with the mirror people. Dr. Pocket’s rambling about them remains in her head sometimes. There are even times she thinks she can almost see him, drawn and pale and tired … and scared. Just like her.

She has seen a lot of them. Many of them stick to her, following her down the jagged paths, and sharp edges leading nowhere and to all the different levels of this place that decidedly hasn’t been the British Museum for quite sometime. It’s like becoming lost in some mad landscaper’s dream, or eternally navigating through a non-Euclidean nightmare.

Ida feels the exhaustion in her very being, but she realizes that she hasn’t been hungry or thirsty in quite some time. In fact, come to think of it, when she remembers she hasn’t had any bodily functions here, not even the need for sleep. This is not the case for the shadows, whose backwards faces she sometimes sees in the light of her lamp. It drives them away, shrieking back into the dark corners of this purgatory. She doesn’t know how long she will be able to hold them off.

The light in her hands that, by all rights, she shouldn’t have even had for this long before the shadows had taken her deep into this place, was a deterrent to them … consuming her, but just as it repelled them, it also let them know where she was. It is only a matter of time before they manage to surround her on all sides, and take her away from her lamp.

Even so, there are other people sometimes. Not just Dr. Pocket, if it is indeed him, but the Mr. Waylon the coat check gentleman. And others in different period clothing. Sometimes, she even thinks she sees animals like … Kevin, the rat with the cat ears at her side. Ida vaguely recalls the story of Diogenes shining a lamp in broad daylight, making a statement about attempting to find an honest man. Ida doesn’t know about that, but her light keeps her safe.

It is fitting, she thinks to herself as she turns another corner with some other people of the mirror, she had spent so much of her life wanting to be noticed because of her work with electricity, having her ideas stolen from her, that when she is the only one she can see with true light in a place of darkness she wants to do nothing else but hide, or flee from the situation entire.

Nevertheless, Ida clenches her jaw. She doesn’t know where she is, or what she is now, but whatever else she has become, she is the light-bringer here. If she can provide a temporary shield for her and fellows against the shadows, she would gladly do it: to embrace this cross to bear that was never sought nor earned. And this place, even with its crawling darkness, will have to do a lot more to her if it planned to extinguish her hard held radiance.

For however long it lasts.

*

Dr. Mason Pocket wanders the labyrinth.

He recalls the etymology of the word, in his drifting mind.  The labrys: the double-bitted ax found on the island where the city-state of Crete resided. According to various studies, the Minoan civilization performed many sacrifices there to their gods. And, of course, there is the monster of myth, the Minotaur, that roamed a maze of that named created by the greatest of ancient Achaean inventors Daedalus.

But Daedalus did not avail Mason’s assorted group, nor his sense of reason and order in this situation. Invention only staved off the occultic tide for so long before human folly fell to its primordial weight of inevitability. In retrospect, he should have listened to Ms. O’Neil on that account. If anything, he can relate to the labrys most of all now: given that he had shattered the mirror that contained one of his companions.

He had been so sure it would free Ms. Codswell, as she had been pointing at him, trying to speak mutely from the dark surface.

Sometimes, he thinks he sees her here in the winding corridors.

Mason still knows there is a difference between the shadow people, and the mirror people. The shadow people are turned around wrong. Their faces are warped and twisted. If they were human, they stopped being so long ago.

The mirror people had definitely been human. But they drift around, out of colour, out of space, lost … Just like him.

Neither shadows nor reflections trouble Mason anymore. He has come to, essentially, accept them all. There is a balance in this. There are no shades of red, green, or black to trouble the former archivist anymore. He feels like a shade in some ancient Sumerian afterlife, his breathing a rustling of leaves, his respite cold muck, his essence empty, his sense of purpose drifting away …

It should frighten him, but he wonders if this is what it is like to be one of his beloved antiquities, his relics, sitting on their shelves all catalogued and organized. He helped destroy a precious black mirror, an ancient artifact after all, wrapped in symbols of … Aklo? Perhaps, in retrospect again, the American Enoch Bowen might have had a better notion from his own Egyptian archaeological find over five decades before, a thing left in darkness rather being contained in radiance. In the end, perhaps this place is the dream of a museum within an undying mind, where the struggles between good and evil, day and night, and light and dark do no matter anymore in these shades of grey.

For all he had given out his pamphlets to reveal the knowledge of the ancients to the world at large, like the tomb of the dread Nephren-Ka perhaps in the end it should have all belonged to a museum — as did he — all of them consigned into boxes, and mercifully forgotten.

*

There was a crooked man, he whispers to himself, and he went a crooked mile.

Archie Orlick staggers down the stairs, his arms outstretched in front of him, searching, reaching, trying to keep the balance. Trying to keep going.

He found a crooked sixpence, he croaks in an Irish brogue, against a crooked stile.

Archie had lived most of his life, looking over his own shoulder. As Septimus Goodfellow, the celebrity spiritualist whose finery he wears even now with his cloak and clasp and chain around a neck that by all rights and purposes should have been severed cleanly on a museum floor, he owed the Order of the Golden Dawn a lot of money.

The blighter Merriweather had what he wanted. He has even more of what he wants now.

He bought a crooked cat, he sings, softly, which caught a crooked mouse.

Bathsheba. He doesn’t think about her much. David’s wife. The woman a king killed a man for with dishonesty. A cat entered for similar reasons. It wouldn’t be the first time Archie got into trouble over pussy. Over dishonesty.

An actor’s bread. Mathers. Machen. His countryman Yeats. Crowley. Fakes and actors — pretentious wankers — the lot of them. As if they were any different than he. When Archie set out on his path through spiritualist circles, taking on the fop mask of Goodfellow, he claimed to channel the spirits of the dead and see their secrets for what they are. A channeler. A goddamned medium. It seems so far away now. So much clearer.

Blatavsky, another fraud. She talked about people who remembered the future, and walked towards the past. Like he is walking now. Just like now. How dare they judge him? These fucks. They don’t know. They know what it’s like living from one coin to another and not know if they were going to get their bread that day, and there are so many ignorant suckers, so many around him …

And … Archie murmurs, sing-sing, they all liv’d together in a little crooked house. 

Nah. Archie lived his whole life looking over his shoulder. Now, all he can do is look back.

Lemurians. Yes. That’s what Blatavsky called them. People with one eye at the back of their heads.

And now, all Archie can do is keep walking forward, his hands reaching, traveling down towards the different planes of this world, through its corners, and its facets, not knowing when his next opportunity, his next fellow traveler, his next mark, his next meal-ticket will come.

And Archie, who once called himself Septimus Goodfellow, his pale twisted mouth opening wide is very, very hungry.

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