Entry 0094: In the Maze, the Heart Beats

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LP: La Dusseldorf by La Dusseldorf

1976 Nova6.22 550

Favorite Track: Silver Cloud

 

Recently, I have talked to my friends about their top ten favorite video games. Using that as a prompt, I will use the games as a writing prompt to write something wild, extraordinary–something Skip Rogers would approve of. Of course, if anyone of you out there beyond the Void of the Internet actually knows me, then this little series must begin with a simple game called Ms. Pac-man. Why is Ms. Pac-man my favorite game? A combination of things: I loved going to arcades as a child; I like simple one joystick games; I like how it is an improvement on Pac-man with moving fruit, changing stages, and a less rigid need to stick with pattern play. Or maybe I’m just in love with her. Shut up.

What I can take out of the game to make a story: the anxiety of being stuck in a maze, never finding your way out, being chased by ghosts of the past who seem to be around every corner, and maybe after just enough pills you can get out…

 

Made a left at the intersection…

There was a time she was worried about losing her car in a parking garage. Or misplacing her keys. Now all that felt rather foolish, petty even. Endless this place seemed. The walls all looked the same creepy peeling beige like a disused hospital wing. The light was a noncommittal gray and being filtered through some kind of gauzy ceiling. She came to another intersection. Two choices: left or right. Why did she feel like everything hinged on this decision?

Turned right for two steps, then backtracked to the left…

She began to hear other sounds than the soft falls of her foot. One was the sound of a bus or fire truck gunning its engine to clear a hill. The other was gibbering laughter. A third was like a spastic suction pump. The fourth was just more footsteps. She knew something would be in here. She imagined it large, hairy, and with sharp claws and slobbering jaw. Heat bore down on the back of her neck as she picked up her pace. Each decision at intersections were arbitrary: where was somewhere to hide? Panic had set in. Flashes of childhood friends, family, and, for reasons not entirely clear to her, video game characters passed like a college through her mind. What would Mega Man do? She laughed at that thought, then heard the footsteps right behind her.

The secret passage…

Again, the loud engine filled her ears with metal and compressed air. Hearing things was scary enough, but visioning the monster of her nightmares reaching for her was terrible. She knew in one second, a claw would pierce her flesh right at the base of her skull, paralyze her. Her legs didn’t work. It had already happened. She screaming nothing because her vocal cords had become cold, like the rest of her body as a shadow surrounded her. A stray thought: parking garages have doors leading to stairwells. She ran to the wall, her hands reaching for a doorknob that was not there. The shadow covered everything now. Her teeth chattered. That horrible laughter like a symphony of clacking skeletons and desiccated human skin suits. Her hand went through the wall. A screeching noise as if the brake pads were missing. She was in the wall.

The Dancing Fruit…

Her dreams had always been fantastic, but the dream logic behind them held a consistent strain of realism. Never did humans have wings and fly. Never did water become wine. Once, the trees were inverted but it was because she was in a hollow cave underneath the earth and the roots mirrored the limbs above. But as she passed through the wall into what she called a secret passage, she found herself surrounded by dancing fruit. Not regular sized fruit. Not larger fruit although they often looked like they were twice the size she had seen at the supermarket. But the fruit definitely lived within more than three dimensions so that aspects of them shimmered out for a second and came back when she looked at them from a different angle. Cherries, strawberries, oranges, pretzels (that’s not fruit her brain screamed but, on a hunch, she imagined them tasting like kiwis), apples, pears, and bananas. Each fruit sang a different pitch. The whole chorus made one sustained C chord. Only faintly could she hear an automobile accident. The fire truck was coming. Or was it already there? She touched a fruit and all went silver.

High score…

It took every effort for her to open her eyes. It felt like she was fighting somebody’s fingers holding down her eyelids. Then, when they were open, she wasn’t even sure she could see. Everything was a fiery brightness. Closing her eyes would be a smart idea, but she resisted. She wanted to know where she was. Crunching metal was but a dying echo in her ear. She sniffed spilt oil on pavement. A parking garage came to mind. Something fuzzy entered her field of vision. The monster! Once again, she failed to scream. A lone, long claw pierced the crook of her arm. Her vision cleared. A needle. A hospital. But no doctor. The needle was an automated machine. It looked like it fed on quarters. Heat returned to her body. Her limbs felt extra fresh as if they had woken up stronger and more vital than before. As if she gained an extra life. She stood up, donning some neatly folded clothes on a drab chair. The room contained a single bed and a boarded up window. The light bulb flickered then went out. As she opened the door, she swallowed nervously. The hospital was empty; the only sound her footsteps. Down the long stretch of hallway was an intersection with two choices: right or left…

Entry 0093: The Other Sound

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7-inch: It’s the New Thing! by the Fall

2016 Superior Viaduct, SV108

Favorite Track: Various Times

 

“What do you do when you fall in love with a new band?”

Daryl looked worried. His round blue eyes seemed to be trying to spin around 360 degrees or to look through shadows. He wasn’t on drugs, but Karl knew that music could be just as addicting. When he first heard Marquee Moon…

“Who is your fancy this time?”

Daryl coughed. His breath stank of last night’s beer and old tuna. “This Manchester group. The Fall. I’ve-”

Daryl was never hesitant. Rarely did he change the subject like he did now.

“This book I’m reading, well, really it is a collection of short stories, but I meant they flow thematically or, perhaps, really they are just the same story…ghost story…told over and over again as if there is one true horror in the world…death can speak to you.”

Karl nodded his head, pausing to brush aside some strands of unwashed blond hair from his eyes. It had been a year or longer since he had read a book and he was almost envious of the way Daryl devoured them. Except when he began to speak of certain supernatural authors…as if what they wrote were more real to Daryl than Hemingway or Proust. Karl had only one favorite book: a book about caterpillars. And he told no one how much he loved it.

“Daryl, here you go again over-reacting to the fact that you found something that resonates with you. That you enjoy. I’m starting to imagine you are some kind of ascetic trying to live like Francis of Assisi-”

“There is this story with a secret staircase. Two men go down into the darkness and find what they are looking for: a loose stone. One carefully pulls it out while the other stands guard, expecting something but not being able to name what it is. And beyond the stone is a bundle of sorts, so the first man reaches in and that’s when the bundle moves. It’s alive you see. It is a ghost.”

Daryl smile faded from his face. Karl noticed his lower lip looked slightly chapped but chewed. The winter this year had been brutal with cold winds and negative temperatures. Class had been cancelled twice so far with tomorrow being a strong possibility for another closure. As if the howling winds outside their dorm room attested, a tree branch scratched the window with the intensity of a puppy wanting back inside.

“It always does that. I jumped myself a little. What story is this Daryl? And what does this have to do with the Fall? Were they the ones who sang Sonic Reducer?”

Daryl shook his head, eyes never leaving the tree branch. Karl was started to notice there was a small black bird perched on it even though it was still scratching against the window. It wasn’t there just a second ago…

“No, that’s the Dead Boys. The Fall had some singles like It’s the New Thing and Bingo Master’s Breakout. But I dug up Dragnet the other day and when I put it on, I was transformed…or possessed…or something supernatural like in the story…”

“Yes, what about that story? It sounds like I might have to give it a go-”

“No. It and Dragnet are like the bundle. They are ghosts. But alive. Don’t put your hands on things that leave stains or won’t let go. The shape of your mind after such an encounter. I…”

The bird was gone but just as Karl had turned his head from the window, he saw Daryl react, his mouth tensing in a thin line, and Karl checked over his shoulder and sure enough the bird was back on the branch but with a struggling purple worm in its mouth.

“Well, you can’t fault a bird for being hungry. And are you sure you aren’t taking these stories, this music a little too seriously?”

Daryl bowed his head for a moment. He seemed like he was welling up to spill a long overdue monologue. Instead, he asked a simple question: “But what if these stories are word for word true?”

So the dead can speak but we do not know the language. Or is the language of the dead so frightening, so offputting, that we could only react with screams, mental anguish, and moody depression?”

The worm went down the bird’s gullet in one fast disappearing trick.

“They need us. The dead. We keep their spirits alive by learning about them or listening for them or reading about them. And, at first, they were happy because they were not being forgotten, but now they are angry. We aren’t saving them. They miss life and want it back. And, maybe, they can come back if we…if we keep touching those secret bundles…”

The wind shook the oak again and the bird flew away. It darted in a curious zig zag pattern, its small furry body somehow untouched by the wind. Karl shook his own head and again brushed aside strands of hair.

“I think I am turning in for the night. The question reminds: should I listen to the Fall or not?”

Daryl did not bat an eye. “At your own risk. The other side has its consequences.”

 

The next day, Karl awoke and Daryl had already left for his sculpture class. On his desk was the seven-inch single titled It’s the New Thing. Karl shrugged. Daryl was a little batty in the head. They became friends in grade school because both of them knew about Dungeons and Dragons. Their friendship mostly consisted of them indulging on finding new esoteric entertainments whether it be comics, novels, music, art, or, although rarely, Irish folklore.

The vinyl was light and the needle ran over some small bits of dust setting the speakers into static-like thunder. Then the song came on and Karl tapped his finger along. Mark E. Smith yapped a string of words like a cultish prayer. The guitar and keyboard and drums suddenly smashed into each other as if a car accident happened in the recording studio. Mark E. Smith continued his chant. A rhythm was found then lost. More chaos.

Karl did not notice that the song was over and the record was spinning endlessly. He also did not notice the small black bird, back at the window. Karl looked into the other side and hear the almost inaudible breathing, the soft pads of feet inching closer, the implacable limbs reaching for this throat…

Entry 0092: The Continuing Wrath of Conan

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7-inch: Ceremony by Wussy

2016 Damnably DAMNABLY045

Favorite Track: Ceremony (cover)

 

More Conan reviews! *Spoilers*

“The Hand of Nergal” – 2 out of 5 broken skulls

Robert E. Howard and Lin Carter

 

This story begins in a fascinating manner: Conan has become a mercenary in the Turanian army and is in the pitch of battle against the forces of Munthassem Khan. During the combat, Conan watches a field commander be slain by giant shadowy bats. The descriptions of these beasts are beautiful and, once again, the cosmic horror of Lovecraft stands out. Conan swings his sword and slices one open but it just reforms. Conan begins to go numb but remembers a conveniently found talisman in his pouch and pulling it out causes the shadowy bats to flee and warmth to return to his body. Then he faints. When he wakes up, he is alone on the battlefield. He picks his way forward finding a horse and then a nearly naked lady still alive. She has come to find him and bring him back to the sorcerer Atalis, who wants to over throw Munthassem Khan.

So far so good. But then this is where the tale slacks. We learn that Munthassem Khan was once a good ruler, but when the Hand of Nergal fell from the sky it corrupted him. The only counter is the Heart of Tammuz. Note: both of these are ancient Mesopotamian gods. Conan leads an attack against the Khan but fails, however, the Heart of Tammuz and the Hand of Nergal grow into giant beings that fight each other until nothing is left. The Khan also turns into ash.

For the first time in these stories, the cosmic aspect disappoints me. It is nice to see that Conan is not the “hero” of the story in the conventional sense of him slaying the evil monster/person (*see story below), but the two strange artifacts just turning into cosmic beings and disappearing makes for a lacking ending. Also, what happened to the bat creatures from the start of the tale? I wanted to see Conan figure out a way to kill them. Compared to the rest of this collection, this story falls short in two ways: one) premise is too similar to all the rest but lacking the great details or atmosphere of the other tales and two) cop out ending.

“The City of Skulls” – 4 out of 5 broken skulls

L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter

 

I believe this was the longest tale in the story. The length added to the story making it feel like the first world-adventuring story in the entire collection. So far, most of the tales involved Conan arriving in a city, learning where some treasure is, trying to steal, and killing lots of people. This time we have Conan in an army again with a friend named Juma, who I really hope returns. Juma is a tall man from Kush, who is ferocious in battle yet laughs pleasantly. Their army is defeated, Conan, Juma and the princess Zosara are captured and taken to the fabulous land of Meru, whose origin we learn later on in fascinating details. Shamballah, the capital of Meru, is known as the City of Skulls and everywhere Conan looks, skulls looks back. I shivered once when I imagined if Ben Templesmith drew a picture of the City of Skulls.

The rimpoche, Jalung Thongpa, wants Zosara as a bride. Conan attempts to rescue her, but his magical staff knocks him unconscious. Oh no, in addition to the kill count, I should have kept track of how many times the barbarian falls unconscious. Conan and Juma are sentenced to slaves and whips crack as we are reminded of a brutal and nasty part of history even the United States tries to cover up. How sick and twisted are people to look at another human being and see nothing there but an animal or worse, to bind them in fetters and beat them, starve them, and rob their dignity. Of course, Conan and Juma find a way to break free after what I assumed was seven nights of rowing. They kill some of the slavers, but do not have time to free the other slaves, leaving us readers in a bit of a moral quagmire.

Upon return to Shamballah, they find a magic ritual going on, Zosara is tied up naked (of course), and an excellent fight scene happens. The statue of the god Yama comes to life and hypnotizes Conan, but Juma throws Jalung Thongpa under its foot, which crushes the rimpoche and then slips smearing his remains across the dais, which is the most descriptive and brutal death in the series so far. Way to go Juma! I love this character. The death of the rimpoche causes the statue to become stone again and Conan, Juma, and Zosara leave. Then comes the silliest part of all the stories I’ve read so far! Conan tells Juma he is going to return Zosara to the bridegroom waiting for her. After a month journey, he does so and they are rewarded with gold. Juma asks him why he returned a good looking woman who was obviously fond of him and Conan replies, “I don’t want to get tied down, but the heir to the throne is already on the way.”

Zing! That’s pretty terrible, so I will just shake my head. Despite the ending, I am down with the story. I felt this one could be filmed as a movie as it is, although they would want to expand on the history and action scenes. But there is plenty to work with as a reader of these tales: good battles, travel albeit in the terrors of slavery; rebellion, magic, a crazy statue coming to life, and more action. The pacing felt good and enough of the environment was given its lore to feel real. Juma is the best “sidekick” Conan has had and I hope we see more of him. Also, it is nice to see Conan doing other things beside thieving although what isn’t  being a mercenary justifying looting corpses because you were paid to hack them apart?

Overall, the first book in the Conan series was really good. The best story, in my opinion, was “The Tower of the Elephant” and we had only one mediocre story, “The Hand of Nergal”. What happens in the next book, I have no idea, but I love the Frank Frazetta cover.

Entry 0091: Conan Strikes Again

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LP: Ace of Spades by Motorhead

1980 Mercury Records SRM-1-4011

Favorite Track: Ace of Spades

 

This has been an extremely busy summer for me, but it has been filled with special times. To top it off, everything I have been reading since June has been outstanding. V.E. Schwab captured my imagination with a swashbuckling adventure with A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows. Then Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon series was full of violent death, psychedelic imagery, and a sorrowful ending. I finished the first book in the Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon and started the second: what a beginning! Everything hinted at in the first book (i.e., magic, elves, gnomes, larger world building) comes flying right out of the gate and has me reading much faster than the first book. M.R. James has been keeping me up with his ghosts.

And then we come to Conan the Cimmerian. Two more spoiling reviews below:

“The God in the Bowl” – 3 out of 5 broken skulls

Robert E. Howard

This story almost got 2 broken skulls, but I bumped it up one for some fantastic images at the end of the story. The weakest aspect of this story is the locked room murder mystery framework it is told in. A curator dead! Conan the prime supsect! The night watchman and magistrate standing around interrogating the barbarian and each other! The premise is amusing enough to be hilarious, but the tone is too serious. Also, the real murderer is pretty damn obvious from the start. Had Howard used this opportunity to explore primitive or feudal justice systems, had Conan moved to jail, stand trial, interact with different levels of the judicial system then the atmosphere and environment of the story may have been better. Instead, we get some mediocre dialogue and some blind to the obvious guards.

However, we do get some interesting world building and a hint at the conflicts between nations. The sarcophagus was sent from Stygia–a place Conan has not visited yet that I am vastly excited to see happen. But the saving grace of the story is Howard’s descriptions of the giant bowl and its engravings and the final conflict between Conan and the murderer. Needless to say, the Lovecraft influence is still touched upon these stories and I’m curious to see if they will stay that way or turn toward more typical hack’n’slash.

“Rogues in the House” – 4 out of 5 broken skulls

While reading this story, I wished I had kept a Conan kill count. His sword has tasted much blood at this point. This story is similar to other Conan tales: Conan goes a-plundering, meets people, dodges traps, and slays anyone he can. However, this one puts a magnifying lens on its characters: Conan, Murilo the aristocrat, and the Red Priest, Nabonidus. At first, Conan is the rogue–Murilo attempting to free him from prison to serve his bidding. Then the Red Priest is the rogue for his strange house, rituals, and using the king. But, at last, Murilo admits his own rogue behaviors, being forced to admit he sells state secrets to other cities. It’s some nice introspection some of the other Conan stories lack. I easily could have spent more time with these characters.

But the stars of this story are Thak and the Red Priest’s traps. Thak is the Red Priest’s servant–a grotesque half-evolved man with more cunning intelligence than giving credit for. Which is why the Red Priest gets knocked unconscious and thrown into the basement while Thak runs around in his red cloak. He disposes of most of the challenges he faces and provides to be Conan’s toughest enemy in combat by far, however, he is slain. Conan admits he did not kill a beast, but a man–due to some barbarian battle honor. Which makes an interesting question: most of society (at least the rich represented by the Red Priest and Murilo) look down on Thak and especially believe him to be stupid, but Conan’s morality is based upon strength and combat which Thak is strong in. Whose view of Thak is correct, or more-correct? Is Thak a rogue as well?

Then there are the DnD-styled traps. Oh, I love when houses have secret passageways and hidden switches and poisonous gas clouds.This story is high fantasy approaching greatness.