Two men are holed up in a motel, watching an amber alert on the television news (see Media Landscape) about the abduction of eight-year-old Alton Meyer: Meyer sits on the floor of the room the men occupy – its windows are blacked-out with cardboard – reading Comics. These men turn out to be Roy Tomlin (Shannon), Alton’s biological father, and Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper and Roy’s long-lost friend from childhood. The pair has abducted Alton from “The Ranch”, a quasi-Christian Religious cult based in rural Texas that has been worshipping Alton’s ability to speak in tongues (see Linguistics) and emit beams of pure blue light from his eyes: the cult sees the boy’s Psi Powers as the harbingers of a forthcoming Rapture-like apocalypse. Cult-leader Pastor Calvin Meyer (Shepard), the boy’s adopted father, is interviewed by NSA Communications expert Paul Sevier – played here with some Humour and panache by Adam Driver in the wake of his portrayal of the Villain Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) – and pointedly asked how streams of numbers from encoded satellite transmissions have found their way into Meyer’s sermons; Pastor Meyer insists Alton received them as revelation from a holy source:-
Vigilante lawyer Matt Murdock, protagonist of Daredevil (2015-current), persuades binge-drinking private investigator Jessica Jones (2015-current), former Prison inmate Luke Cage (2016-current) and billionaire martial arts expert Danny Rand from Iron Fist (2017), to combine their efforts against the perfidious Asian Crime syndicate “The Hand”, the Secret Masters behind a series of earthquakes that begins to afflict contemporary New York.
The original line-up of The Defenders from Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) included the man from Atlantis Namor, the Alien emissary the Silver Surfer, and TheIncredible Hulk, central character of both the US tv series (1977-1982) and the film of the same name (2008); this was coordinated by Comic-book HeroDoctor Strange, most recently given the big-budget treatment in Doctor Strange (2016). The membership of the four-strong team of Superheroes changed frequently, however, over the course of its run in Marvel Comics from 1972 until 1986, as it did on a mission-by-mission basis under the name The Secret Defenders (1993-1995), and was always subject to the kind of contractual availability and convenience that made it suitable for current-day aims of the Television arm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
“Am I the only one who can see the fucking sense, here?” asks K’s boss at the Los Angeles Police Department, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright): “This breaks the world, K.” “The ancient models give the entire endeavour a bad name,” says Wallace’s corporate enforcer and later-model replicant Luv (Hoeks). This is the way mid-twenty first century Earth is organized: cops, renegades and production units. Any production unit that goes renegade is “retired” (i.e. murdered) by a Blade Runner, itself a production unit of a system of Crime and Punishment that exists to protect the commercial interests of the Corporations. The tripartite power structure mirrors the Subhuman/Protagonist/Übermensch methodology of mid-era Philip K Dick, which Dick himself laid out in a long letter to fellow sf writer Ron Goulart in the summer of 1964: “The entire dramatic line of the book hinges on the impact between [the Übermensch] and [the Subhuman],” Dick is quoted as writing to Goulart in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989), “…the personal problem of [the Subhuman] is the public solution for [the Übermensch].” Here, the “miracle birth” McGuffin of Rachael’s lost child Messiah – a common motif in the work of Philip K Dick, whose dedication to a Drug-fuelled Jungian version of the Gnostic Religion only intensified over the course of the 1960s – is used to relate the domestic concerns of K, and those of the protagonist of the first film, Rick Deckard (Ford), to the world-sized problem faced by Niander Wallace, the Übermensch who replaces Eldon Tyrell in Dick’s schema from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968):-
“Since being incarcerated I’ve developed empathy with those who’ve suffered at the hands of the law,” Wilson Fisk tells Frank Castle/The Punisher in episode nine of season two of Daredevil, inviting comparison with the character who may be the prototype of the modern Superhero, Edmont Dantès, the protagonist of Le Comte de Monte-Christo (28 August 1844-15 January 1846 Journal des Débats; 1844-1845 18vols; trans as The Count of Monte Cristo1846 3vols) by Alexandre Dumas. “Everyone warned me about Prison but I find it refreshing,” Fisk continues: “It’s the perfect microcosm of the animal world.” (See Social Darwinism.) What prison, in fact, reveals in both Daredevil and The Count of Monte Cristo is the dirty secret of free-market democracy: corruption. All four of The Defenders witness the effect of criminal exploitation on the Media Landscape of New York and the Economics of their local communities. “The City you’re sworn to protect is Ground Zero in a War it doesn’t even know is happening,” insists Daredevil’s mentor Stick (Glen). If the Pulp traditions of storytelling from which Daredevil and Iron Fist inherit many of their Clichés and visual tropes used Western Paranoia about the Yellow Peril to convey fears about the consequences of Imperialism in Asia, here the Secret Masters “The Hand” relay domestic concerns about the war on Drugs and the United States’ role in geopolitics since World War Two, albeit in a way that does not quite call the American way of life into question. Societal anxieties are instead called forth in the courtroom trial of murderous war veteran Frank Castle/The Punisher, who seems to epitomize everything the United States fears about its militarism and dependence on the family unit as the basis of social cohesion. “This trial isn’t about vigilantes, it’s about the failure of the justice system,” Foggy Nelson tells the jury. “New York needs heroes,” pleads Matt Murdock. “All I want is the truth about something,” says Karen Page, frantic about the impurity of the motives of everyone around her. “Kill your way to justice!” bellows Wilson Fisk:-
Where stories on a planetary scale might reveal the magnitude of human folly, Cities obscure the private degradation of human motives; both venues, however, allow for the interrogation of the relationship between Identity and civilization. Rosemary’s Baby is in many respects as New Wave as anything that appeared in sf magazine New Worlds or any of the Original Anthologies of the 1960s: rarely can have the mutual indebtedness of the nouvelle vague in Cinema and the new wave in Genre SF been so clearly demonstrated. That the film also reveals the continuing importance of Horror in SF to the emergence of Fantastika as a cornerstone of popular culture is instructive: there is little so cathartic to the human imagination as watching one’s unspoken fears about the malevolence of human society rendered as entertainment.
Rosemary’s Baby achieves this by the way it merges its slow, almost predatory, portrayal of human Psychology under supernatural pressure with its mastery of surrealistic filmmaking techniques: here the razor from Un chien Andalou (1929) by Luis Buñuel & Salvador Dalí is exchanged for the kitchen knife in the hand of postpartum mother Rosemary Woodhouse (Farrow), the keyhole voyeurism of Le Sang d’un Poète (1930) by Jean Cocteau repurposed as the neighbourly manipulations of Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon) and the clandestine marital set-up of Les Diaboliques (1955) by Henri-Georges Clouzot recycled as the selfish ambition of Rosemary’s flaky and avaricious husband Guy (Cassavetes). Les Diaboliques, released as Diabolique in the United States and sometimes translated as The Devils or The Fiends, also influenced the Freudian terror of Psycho (1960). Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho (1959) on which Alfred Hitchcock‘s seminal thriller is based, cited Les Diaboliques as his favourite horror film. It is the way director and screenwriter Roman Polanski fuses the oneiric force of Rosemary’s inner life to the interior of the New York apartment block to which she and her husband have moved that causes the viewer to identify so closely with her predicament:
Vagrant Workshop has released Itras By: The Menagerie, a compendium of supplementary materials for the Itras By roleplaying game organised like Dadaesque pamphlets or avant-garde magazines of the 1920s. I’m very happy.
“Between 1900 and 1937 Europe experienced an extraordinary cultural rebirth and interchange of ideas, comparable to the Renaissance and Enlightenment,” says Stephen Bury in his introduction to Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (2007). The term avant-garde (“vanguard”) had become associated with utopian politics over the course of the nineteenth century.
“We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious,” said Henri de Saint-Simon in Literary, Philosophical and Industrial Opinions (1825), a treatise on how artists, scientists and manufacturers might combine to lead humankind out of the alienation caused by industrial society. “When we wish to spread new ideas among people, we use in turn the lyre, ode or song, story or novel… we aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive.”
I’d long-hoped for a roleplaying game to address this shared imaginative space: my own efforts to introduce surrealist ideas into games of Vampire: The Masquerade – I was always enamoured of Clan Toreador – or Mage: The Ascension were for the most part paltry and ill-conceived; I wanted the thing without knowing how it should be done. The decision of editor Ole Peder Giæver and publisher Carsten Damm to open the Menagerie up to all-comers was inspired. The book (at almost three hundred pages) was made by Aleksandra Sontowska, Anders Nygaard, Banana Chan, Becky Annison, Caitlynn Belle, Carsten Damm, Cecilie Bannow, Clarissa Baut Stetson, David Cochard, David M Wright, Edward “Sabe” Jones, Emily Care Boss, Evan Torner, February Keeney, Gino Moretto, Henrik Maegaard, Jackson Tegu, Jason Morningstar, Jeremy Duncan, Joshua Fox, Josh Jordan, Judith Clute, Kamil Wegrzynowicz, Karina Graj, Kat Jones, Kathy Schad, Keith Stetson, Li Xin, Lizzie Stark, Magnus Jakobsson, Martin Bull Gudmundsen, Mathew Downward, Matthijs Holter, Mo Holkar, Niels Ladefoged, Ole Peder Giæver, Olivier Vuillamy, Philipp Neitzel, Sanne Stijve, Steve Hickey, Terje Nordin, Thomas Novosel, Tobie Abad, Tor Gustad, Trond Ivar Hansen and Willow Palecek.
There are lots of wonderful things about the Menagerie but it’s the insanity and the sex I like most – that and the way they’re combined with a creative generosity about every conceivable view of the world. Thought and expression are a deadly-serious game that should be treated with the utmost frivolity, and conducted in an atmosphere of outright honesty. People who tell you that life is work want you to work for them: they might ask you to die for them too. This is instead an invitation to express yourself.
This new alliance—I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds—has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress. (Apollinaire, 1917)
Little has changed since Apollinaire died; the world’s war machine rumbles on and public discourse seems to ebb further away from scientific data. The surrealists understood that it is by playfulness that we can achieve the arraignment of violent human impulse to spontaneous truth.
“The Moon grew bigger and bigger until it was the only thing in the sky (and presumably, growing ever still, until it is the only thing in the universe) and with each passing night drilled holes of light into the eyes of the people of city until all they knew was the Moon, all they thought of was the Moon, and all they wanted to do was make the Moon happy,” says Caitlynn Belle in Lunacy (pp69-74, with jagged, evocative illustrations by Thomas Novosel: “And the Moon wanted flesh. And the Moon wanted blood.” My kind of game. In The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy (pp25- 44) by Jackson Tegu, Matthijs Holter and Jeremy Duncan, everybody and everything is having sex: it’s great. (Jone Aareskjold has written a critique of The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy’s treatment of the sex trade here.) “No such thing as love, only passion!” cries Evan Torner in The Shadow Carnival (pp216-238), a freeform scenario in which the principles of German Expressionism guide the action: “No luck, only the will to gain power! Don’t be afraid of me!” I am afraid. I like that. Henrik Maegaard’s illustrations for Evan’s scenario are luminous. Becky Annison and Josh Fox have (correctly in my view) discerned the suitability of Itras By for GMful play in Sharing Room and Giving Space (pp145-154), an approach which calls upon every player to frame scenes, play supporting characters and drive external events.
These are just a few excerpts from the five parts of the Menagerie – Diorama, Laboratory, Dream Resume, Hall of Mirrors and Post Scriptum. Martin Bull Gudmundsen’s essay When Life Does Not Make Sense (pp256-263) was, for me, a masterclass in making sense. It may be that you prefer to purchase games or books in digital format to lessen your impact on the environment or save shelf-space but I must say I didn’t fully appreciate the wonder of Kathy Schad’s visual design until I held the physical artefact in my hands. You can buy it here.
The second issue of RPG fanzine Machineries of Joy is dedicated to games from the Nørwegian Surreal.
I appear in this flower court. Pictures blossom: they’re my drums. My words are songs. Flowers are the misery I create.
Includes text from “Enjoy!” by Terry Eagleton (a review of The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters by Slavoj Žižek; The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World by Slavoj Žižek / F.W.J. von Schelling; The Plague of Fantasies by Slavoj Žižek) in the London Review of Books, 27 November 1997; and images from The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, Ballantine Books, 1976; Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski, Paramount Pictures, 1968, based on the novel of the same name by Ira Levin; The Thing by John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, Universal Pictures, 1982; and Whitechapel Gallery monograph, 2011 (featuring XXXV, 2007) by John Stezaker; music is I Don’t Know If This Is A Matter For Wardrobe Or Hairdressing from We Bake Our Bread Beneath Her Holy Fire by Thumpermonkey (2010).
In 1539 the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day –
Humphrey BOGART as Dashiell HAMMETT
Sir Lanzilot on the Bridge of Swords
“He did what he thought was right.”
Elisha COOK, Jr.
Space MONKEY as The Demiurge
Wolfram von ESCHENBACH
From a Story by
Chrétien de TROYES
“World of Shit” is from the album Souljacker by Eels (2001).
“I’m blind to all but a tenth of the universe.”
“What do you see?”
“The city… as if it were unborn. Rising into the sky with fingers of metal, limbs without flesh, girders without stone. Signs hanging without support. Wires dipping and swaying without poles. A city unborn. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.”
Stage One: An image is clearly a substitute or representation of something real. Stage Two: Distinguishing between image and reality is difficult but possible. Stage Three: There is no difference reality and representation.
Add your own code at your own pace.
The song “What is the Light?” comes from the album The Soft Bulletin by The Flaming Lips (1999).
We’d laugh at him when we were growing up: ape his funny yokel accents, shake our heads at his racism, sneer at his propensity to stack adjectives; it was a way of excusing ourselves our own racism and snobbery, I guess.
That’s the thing: we who are closeted behind the barricades of the western world are not as distant from the attitudes expressed in the stories of H P Lovecraft as we might like. You can say, “I didn’t choose this,” or, “I won’t do this,” but some of those ideas are embedded into the structure of our language, disguised as ‘common sense’ or patriotism. H P Lovecraft reveals what lies beneath the deep-seated and intractable issue of racism: revulsion and a refusal to face the truth.
He’s also one of very few writers to find an original approach to describing the Real; what’s written isn’t always willed by its writer in the absolute sense, and connotation can be as important as denotation to artistic longevity.
Michel Houellebecq – writing before his own talent and notoriety made him famous – makes a good case for H P Lovecraft’s creative importance in H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (translated into English by Dorna Khazeni in 2005 and republished by Gollancz in 2008): it is fundamentally an existentialist argument – one about how Lovecraft combined lyricism and delirium to reveal a deeper truth about human estrangement:-
“I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless Time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was 17. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.”
Colonial powers refuse to face the truth about their impact on the world not because they are old but because they are infantile: that’s my position, at least. Umberto Eco does a great job of summarising the issue in his article on Ur-Fascism: what is presented as rational is in fact deeply irrational. Here’s a quotation from one of Lovecraft’s letters I found in Howard Ingham’s review of the film Jug Face (2013):-
“As for the Nazis – of their crudeness there be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for some phases of their position. They are fighting, in their naive & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world – & one can’t help respecting that however ugly & even dangerous some of them may appear to be. Hitler is no Mussolini – but I’m damned if the poor chap isn’t profoundly sincere & patriotic, it is to his credit rather than otherwise that he doesn’t subscribe to the windy flatulence of the idealistic ‘liberals’ whose policies lead only to chaos & collapse.”
The basis of racism is fear; I think we need to get deeper into this fundamental truth rather than turn away from it. Unconscious impulses require creative understanding.