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.

Make the future happen, after the jump!

Note 3 – Left 4 Dead

November 25th, 2011

notes from the borderlandFirst 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!

The Telly Terror 1: Elephant

October 23rd, 2011

notes from the borderlandWatch this clip. Do so unaware and unshielded, and come back and read the rest of the post after the clip has made you a different person. For the full authentic experience, or as close as you’ll get without being me twenty odd years ago, watch the final execution only, from about 4.12.

It’s doubtful any reading this is too young to remember VHS video. You would record a show onto a thick black fat analogue tape, and watch it later, again and again. When you had seen a show enough times you would tape over it with another show. The contents of each cassette gradually became a patchwork palimpsest of overlapping programmes, the end of each show running into the start of the next, or cutting into a film half-way, a rolling scrapbook of missing beginnings and abrupt endings.

Between the joins of one show and the next was the all pervasive void of snow, empty space on the tape, blank matter, the nonsense noise of the TV and VCR saying nothing to each other. The snowstorms were phase-shifts in your viewing experience, synaptic pauses triggering unstable responses to unpredictable stimuli. Evil faces looming evanescent from the abyssal squalls.

I don’t remember what I was watching beforehand, but I remember the snow, and I remember the last final minutes of Elephant. I haven’t watched it again since, so if the details her are wrong in fact, that’s unavoidable but hardly important. The endlessly brief expanse of ghost-space coalesced int two men, a brutalist building of British municipal anonymity, a landscape instantly familiar and obscure. They walk in eerie silence, with ominous purpose. They come to a third man who awaits them in an enormous, evacuated warehouse space. Walking in wordless footsteps, the pair reach the third man, who raises a pistol and shoots one of them at point blank range in the head. The target falls away, cold and gone, while the camera peers, not flinching, or explaining or remarking, just showing, the oddly perfect star of blood and body on the curdled shining wall.

I sat agape, helpless, pulse and mind racing to come up with the appropriate physiological response, establish the right questions to make the right frame to understand this incredible eruption of quiet chaos into my pleasant little life. It was impossible to explain. I never mentioned this to a soul – what one thing was clear was that this was something I should not have seen, and could not be spoken of, even if I had wanted to brave the threat of explaining it to someone else, of fitting it into words. I rewound it of course, not too shocked for that, to convince myself it was real.

I was not the same person after that point that I had been before. I was the lone custodian of a precious terror that over the years  I largely suppressed.  It wasn’t until last year, and youtube of course, that the memory itself was unburied, that I learnt about Alan Clarke, and discovered what the elephant in the room really was.

Today, as then, the tellybox is a maligned feature of the household. It blasts idiocy daily  into our domestic lives, provides an environmental niche where appalling things like X-Factor, adverts, and the 24hr news cycle may thrive. To admit to watching it is a shame, an admission of defeat. It breeds all kind of awful things.

But that glimpse of Elephant, that giant secret mystery of mine, those silent screaming strange minutes that still frighten me and are so precious and treasured, that was a product of the telly too. For me that moment has become an emblem of the cathode ray’s possibilities, its capacity to disturb instead of pacify, to entrance and enhance the viewer’s perception of the world, and to provoke instead of mollycoddle. The telly isn’t, or needn’t be, a mere transmission conduit for the flat consumerist imperatives of our teetering society. It can be something weird, and frightening, and magical, and uncanny – a really existing portal into impossible new territories. It can open up realms of fascinating and essential new potentialities.

As part of our Notes from the Borderland series (love that logo), we will be posting clips of telly that disturbed and detourned our minds. That shit us right up. The scariest, most toxic and wonderful moments of fear and strangeness we could find. You will not enjoy them, but they will make this most deliciously creepy time of the year yet more terrible and brilliant,  sharp like a dead shark’s tooth. And teach you new respect for the baleful gaze of that odinic eye, that sits there, among you every day, flashing moments of bleakest wisdom from the corner to the heart of your living room.

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Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series:

The Overlook Hotel – Kubrick’s The Shining