October 31st, 2012
Note 4 – Empty Space: A Haunting
It’s important to read new M. John Harrison novels while on holiday. No other author is able to describe with such alarming clarity the necessity of escaping yourself.
Harrison’s latest novel Empty Space is the conclusion of a trilogy of science fiction novels that started with Light in 2002 and was continued in 2006′s Nova Swing.
Like both of its predecessors, Empty Space presents the reader with a future that dazzles with the romance of a thousand yesterdays: women who’ve chosen to be rebuilt with the “Mona” package, but who base their look on that of Marilyn Monroe; virtual fantasy lives that play out like an episode of Mad Men drained of all sex and drama (until, of course, that sex and drama forces its way on in there); covert action groups who, with their lattes and general sense of boyish intrigue, can’t help but remind you of the sort of spooks you’ve never quite managed to catch out of the corner of your eye; Harrison manages to make all of these fantasies gleam briefly in the pages of this book.
This is an exhausted vision of the future, but it’s still a vision of the future for all that, one that sees past the ever-present apocollapse and on to a possible reality that’s like right now stretched out some more. Whether that seems like a hopeful vision or a dystopian nightmare is very much up to you.
November 25th, 2011
First of all, a confession: I’m not very good at computer games, in the same way that I’m not very good at telly, or at keeping up with my friend Jessica (whose collected editions of Uzumaki I eventually had to get The Boy Fae the Heed to return, due to my shameless ineptitude).
I don’t know why, but in my flailing attempts at adulthood, some things have ended up getting pushed to the side and properly playing computer games has been one of those things. For perspective: I don’t think I’ve properly lost myself to a full-length computer game since the original Half-Life, or maybe Deus Ex. I still play the damned things, of course, but it’s more of a social occasion or a light distraction – a little bit of Death Tank on the weekends with my pals, a wee bit of Arkham Asylum when I need to feel like Batman and eating Mulligatawny soup just won’t cut it.
So sure, I can admire the way Jason Rohrer tries to make the simplest game mechanics into little tests of your capacity for guilt and sentimentality, just as I can giggle when people take pot-shots at his work, but put something like Bioshock down in front of me and I’ll have to admit that I just don’t have the time for it.
I am a grown man, after all, and like all grown men, I’ve got comics to read!
So why is it that when I started to think about horror, about what I could possibly contribute to Notes From the Borderland, that I couldn’t escape from a pair of zombie computer games that I play for laughs with my friends?
Ah, well, maybe it’s the friends that are problem here.
What’s worse, after all – to stumble out into the borderlands on your own, or to do so with your friends, knowing that you’re going to betray them, or be betrayed by them, or that you’re at least going to let each other down when the real nastiness shit starts?
Click here 4 a little taste of that Borderland madness!
November 18th, 2011
October 27th, 2011
We’ve already had one frankly astounding post on scary parents as part of Notes From the Borderland, but this clip from Chris Morris’ Jam depicts a very different sort of parental horror, one in which the child’s viewpoint is removed along with the child, and which instead of a tidal wave of bloody emotion you’ve got the drifting currents of casual alienation:
“He’s made a great spaceship… Incidentally, did he come home from school today?”
And yet, from the first few lines onwards, it’s obvious that these parents aren’t completely disinterested in their missing son. They do eventually realise that he hasn’t come home from school, and while they might not want to go to all the bother of identifying his body, they’re still annoyed enough to want to “have a word” with his murderer.
In other words, they’re dimly proud enough of his existence to be cross that he’s gone, but beyond that their level of attention is mimicked by the drifting camera-work, which passes by the parents in a 4am haze, vaguely curious as to what they’re doing, but not enough to stop itself from floating off every few seconds to look at something else…
Flashback to 1997: the year in which I bumbled through this clip on Channel 4 while watching TV with my parents.
The gaudy graphics of the transition should probably have clued us all in to what was really going on – after all, it’s only in the past decade or so that news shows normalised this level of visual excess, and those OTT musical stings still provide a strong clue that you’re staring through the looking glass even today.
Back in 1997 though, we watched on, not really sure what we were watching. Something about the tone was convincing – the opening arm-wrestling competition between Chris Morris’ presenter and Mark Heap’s guest radiates an artifice that seems too tacky to be fake, but this innocuous beginning only made the sudden lurch into group-hatred seem all the more distressing. You can almost taste the nastiness as Morris chastises Heap for having “bad aids” (i.e. the kind you catch off of your boyfriend), and as the panic in the audience becomes more apparent, you realise that you’re watching a demonstration of how much pressure a tall, well-spoken gentleman can apply without seeming to apply much pressure at all. Of course, this technique is more aptly displayed in the scenes in which Chris Morris manipulates real people into doing and saying idiotic things, but I didn’t know that at the time.
“Like everyone else in this audience, I’m thinking ‘What about us? What about me, now?’”
I’m pretty sure that my parents didn’t know what was going on at first either. Oh, sure, by the time we got to the stuff about how everyone in the audience who was yawning could catch aids if someone machine-gunned Heap’s “aids guy” to bits, I think we’d all figured it out. But the few moments before that, where I wasn’t sure if what I was watching was real or fake, made for properly queasy telly. I think the fact that my parents seemed uncertain too only made it more terrifying – it opened up a little door to the Borderland, right in the middle of our living room…
Flashbackforward to a few paragraphs ago: By the time Chris Morris got round to adapting skits from his Blue Jam radio series to TV, I was pretty confident that he’d never catch me out again, at least not without making a prank phone call directly to my house.
That doesn’t mean that his work had lost its power though, far from it. Even without parental confusion factored in, the sketches in Jam still have a sort of terrifying blankness to them, and this blankness makes an unusual amount of sense in this particular scene. While the child in question has already been “buggered quite a lot and then strangled” before the action starts, it’s still all-too-easy to put the kid’s viewpoint back in there, to imagine the distanced viewpoint of the piece to be the viewpoint of the dead child, realising that what he always suspected was true, that adults only care about their progeny out of a sort of withered sense of duty, and what’s worse, that he’s unable to pretend that he cares about anything anymore either.
Fuck me, and I thought it was scary when my parents couldn’t tell me what was going on for thirty seconds, eh?
Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series:
October 26th, 2011
aka the obvious one…
Like Elephant, I didn’t see Threads at the time. It was deliberate this time, another video, borrowed years later on the strength of fearsome reputation. I think – but these memories could well be half invented, half-recounted – I think I can remember the day after Threads was first shown. Shocked and ashen elder sisters, parents bravely pretending everything was just the same as before.
We all knew we had a neighbour not 20 miles distant, forever an unwelcome megatechnological interloper into our innocently bucolic existence, who even if not an obvious first-strike target, still had that doorstep Chernobyl possibilty about it. Parents had explained roughly what it would mean if it went tits up, and I was shocked that there wasn’t something they could do about it. There was an apocalyptic timebomb just down the road. How did they go on without panicking? Why weren’t they screaming, shaking their neighbours and duly elected representatives by the shoulders, awakening them to the threat, begging for something to be done? How could normal life as I had always known it be so permanently close to the precipice of extinction?
Watching Threads again now, as the hardy among you will, that’s still the frightening thing – the destruction of the parental superego, manifested as the pathetically heroic, hopeless efforts of the municipal employees, those clerks and accountants, supervisors and secretaries holding onto the world, to save us all through continuation of a neat and orderly bureaucracy. The accumulated ballast of human society, those cultural codes and social securities, worthy words and high hopes, and all their inevitable extinction in the awful new reality beyond the opening of the atomic portal.
The sickest joke is the collapse of all those habits and symbols would not be instant and total. They’d persist in their broken, poisoned, ineffectual form for a short time after the initial massive surge of human casualties. The words and numbers we use to organise our newly nonexistent world would be walking around undead in the fallout, scorched and sick but stumbling shortly on, for some time after we were sick and starved and gone, prior to the eventual (and as it turns out, unlikely) dominion of the cockroach.
Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series:
October 20th, 2011
Zom and I have talked many times in many articles about the fact that our mother used to work as a TV producer and how the company she worked for was, like so many production companies in the late seventies, situated in Soho. It was an old, thin building with an editing suite in the basement and her office at the top – a scary environment, full of weird adults. — —— used to hang out, drug addled, in the second floor editing suite where my brother and I were once offered cocaine by his pal and the in-house director/company director’s personal rent boy – needless to say, the offices of –TV was no place for children.
It was also haunted.
We were told how, in the old days, the building used to be a brothel, as if our child brains knew what to do with that information. This was a world even more adult than the one currently occupying the tiny, narrow spot in a cranny of central London where the production company had its base. All we knew was it must have been the site of enormous, incomprehensible grown up suffering. Our mother sensed a woman who would not leave, deranged, dressed in red. The presence was particularly strong on the third floor, but above it, in Mum’s office, the atmosphere would clear again. She never made herself felt up there. Just a few feet away and you were safe. When we had to stay late and the building emptied, my brother and I would shut the door between Mum’s office and the stairwell that led down to where the woman waited and sift through the video cassettes, any stray thoughts of ghostly, bloodied women washed away on the tide of Carry on England’s canned laughter or by the boisterous playground jostle of Rhubarb and Custard’s theme music.
Speaking to my Mum about it now, she doesn’t remember the red woman, and I have to admit it could have all got a bit confused in my pre-teen head. The point is, though, my Mum was always going on about ghosts. There was her first flat where her disbelieving housemates got a terrible, poltergeist style awakening one evening when the lights began flashing on and off of their own accord, doors opened with no one behind them and one girl accidentally sat on whatever it was, its arms furling around her, all of which saw the lot of them barricaded in one of the bedrooms when, one day, Mum, vindicated, returned from work. Then there was her boss’s house, the aforementioned director, where plates skidded across tables, books were found strewn over the floor of supposedly tidy rooms and where my mother’s bedside received frequent nocturnal visitations from disturbed, hostile entities silently demanding she leave and never return. Finally there was our family home in ——- and the old lady who would come to Mum in times of extreme sadness or stress in order to comfort her. My Mum’s always been haunted it seems. It’s like the Sixth Sense or something.
And we all know how that turned out.
The elephant in the corner of all these spooky fireside tales is somewhat less thrilling I’m afraid. Astute readers will already realise there’s a common element to all of this, the thing quite possibly causing it all, my mother herself. To say my mum had a happy time of it in 80s would be pushing it. She had a good job doing creative, rewarding work, but she was overworked, often stuck in that fucking edit suite for nights on end with no break, only to see her producer credit given to the rent boy. She was in a relationship with the same man who gave him the credit too. A highly abusive relationship. When she finally returned to our East Sussex home, often around midnight or later, sleep deprived, frazzled and terrified for her two boys because her boss/lover had decided, on a whim, to fire her that day, or some such everyday evil shit like that, she was a nightmare. Like her mother before her, my Mum was frequently a volatile mess, and, as much as i love her, and i do, i have to admit I spent a good part of my childhood genuinely frightened of her. It’s easy now to see that the ghosts in question were probably just her own pain, or, in the case of the old woman, its antidote, displaced into the places she inhabited.
October 18th, 2011
OR: MINDLESS LINKBLOGGING, SPECIAL “ALL BASTARDS MUST BE AGGRAVATED!” EDITION!
As you hopefully noticed, we spent a large part of last month bringing you the best in bastardry. We’ve got some spooky Notes From the Borderland coming up in time for Halloween, so right now seems like as good a time as any to collect all of our bastardly musings together and to celebrate the cruel simplicity of the banner The Beast Must Die created for the event:
Hopefully you’ll be able to forgive me for indulging in a little bit of back-patting here while I take you through AN INDEX OF BASTARDS!