The Problem with ‘Found Footage’ Movies

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Recently, the first plot details were released for what will officially be the 5th installment in the Paranormal Activity series, due to release in October around Halloween as the previous films have done. Last October was the first time since the first film that we’ve gone without one, but we were still provided with a sort of spin-off installment called The Marked Ones which came out at the beginning of this year. It’s far from unusual for a horror series to get dragged out with sequels being released on a yearly basis until all evidence of appeal has been utterly exhausted and it’s fairly easy to explain: horror films are relatively cheap to produce and they get arses in seats. Paranormal Activity however represents the only found footage film to have spawned a largely successful series; REC is the only other one that’s come close. The success of the films largely owes to the fact people like to go and see scary films towards the end of October and the PA films are usually the ones that have the best shot at being scary, for my money there hasn’t been a decent one since 3, but even the fact that they managed to uphold the quality for that long is fairly impressive. Found footage movies are heading for a fall.

It’s a solid concept, ever since Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez figured out that you could actually make the camera a functioning part of the story and brought The Blair Witch Project to unsettling fruition people have been taking the model to new and interesting places, with very mixed results. The best examples apply the style to an already solid concept that fits contextually, Troll Hunter juxtaposed the gritty, believable execution with a gloriously ridiculous premise and Chronicle took a logical approach to the way teenagers might react if they suddenly became endowed with superpowers: they filmed themselves pissing about. With Paranormal Activity it was the idea of people wanting to gather as much evidence as they could of supernatural phenomena, the issue with that being that the more desperate and dangerous a situation becomes, the less plausible it that someone would actually film it. That’s where Cloverfield fell down, it makes sense up to a point that Hud would want to document all the havoc, but later on when they’re all running for their lives, nobody is going to sideline their adrenaline long enough to try and get a better angle of a massive explosion (or lest we forget, the moment when Lizzy Caplan’s head explodes).

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Even when all the camerawork is properly contextualized, too much reliance is often placed on the delivery system to do all the heavy lifting. I recently watched Apollo 18, which starts out as an intriguing patchwork of very authentic mid-70’s style Astronaut footage of a secret moon landing that went horribly awry and then completely falls apart when it’s revealed that the cause of all the danger and commotion is a horde of alien rock crabs. Yep, alien rock crabs, I shit you not. Apollo 18 had the potential to be excellent, the found footage medium is used in exactly the right way, it makes sense within the story and the poor quality of the recording keeps you guessing about the real nature of what’s going on, if only the answer had been something a little more unsettling than rock crabs. This kind of highlights the issue, if films continue to rely on this concept more than the actual storytelling then all of the benefits are going to fizzle away, every time a new one comes out it will be another example of style over substance and the genre will stagnate until it goes the way of video game adaptations and Adam Sandler: everyone will be really surprised when anything good comes out under its banner. The only way to avoid this happening is that filmmakers avoid relying on it as a means of making a film stand out and only use it when it makes sense, figure your story out first, think about the delivery system later. Troll Hunter, The Last Exorcism, Paranormal Activity, Chronicle and Look are all appropriate examples. Rock crabs are not.

Cultured Vultures

I briefly mentioned in my last update that I’d started writing for a culture website and embedded a link, but I figured it’d probably be worth shedding some more light on the subject. The Cultured Vultures is a site that was started by Jimmy Donnellan as a means of helping aspiring writings get their work out there amongst the masses and it’s kind of taken off in the past few months. It started out as a simple wordpress page and has since branched out in its own domain. There are around a dozen contributors at present and I recently got assigned as the head of the television reviews section, following a few articles I did about old TV shows and Netflix. The site’s popularity is steadily rising week by week and new content is always flowing in. What I love about it is that everyone who writes for the Vultures is doing it because they love to write, there’s certainly an element of forward thinking in it and having an online writing credit on your CV can’t hurt but it goes further than that. Far from simply pertaining to TV, film, game and music reviews however the site also branches out into news articles, poetry, short stories and serial fiction, with scope for so much more. With that in mind, if you are an aspiring writer of any kind or even a musician, film-maker or artist and you think you could provide a strong weekly or bi-weekly output that you should sign up. Just go to the link at the bottom of this post and contact us about whatever it is you want to contribute, all are welcome and if you already have a piece of work that you think would be fit for the site, so much the better.

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Life Update 2014

I’m bringing the blogging world up to date on my life for two reasons: firstly to account for my recent relative inactivity on here (poetry aside) and also just because I want to. As far as the former is concerned, I’ve actually started doing a lot of writing work for a culture and media website, which you can find here, so most of my new work has been devoted to that. The bad news with that is that you’ll be seeing a lot less journalistic work on this blog, the good news is that I’ll have to get more creative with my output to account for the rift. So anyway, what’s been going on eh?

Last time I checked in, about six months ago, I was getting things ready for starting my creative writing masters in Birmingham, was in a new relationship and was still working at a nearby pub. Thankfully I quit my job at that particular establishment back in August (just in time as it would appear, they had a health inspection about 3 weeks after I left and got 1 star) but unfortunately the aforementioned relationship ended up being rather short-lived and the masters hasn’t worked out exactly as I had planned. Relationship first: I met Lauren in Cardiff after going there to visit friends following some time spent in B’ham scoping out my new uni, it started out as a one-night stand but we ended up seeing each other every day after that until I left for home, at which point we decided that it was too good of a thing to pass-up because of distance. In the end we didn’t even last 2 months, because of the distance. Maintaining a relationship with a 300 mile gap when you’re as busy as we both were just isn’t going to fly, but hey we gave it a shot. More disconcertingly, I ended up having to defer my masters until September 2014.

I am, admittedly, partially to blame for that. I’d saved a fairly substantial amount of money from my awful job and I had a lot lined up during the summer and I didn’t want to commit to a job in Birmingham too early and thereby hinder it. I was trying to have my cake and eat it. I’m not sure that I regret that, I had a fantastic summer, Italy, Boomtown, Shambala, Cornwall, all wonderful experiences well worth having. Following all that I actually managed to line up a trial shift and an interview but in the former I was just being used for a day’s cheap labor and in the latter I wasn’t told that it was a zero hour contract until moments before my first shift, which is pretty fucking underhanded but cie la vie. So what did I do then? Kinda kept on partying for a while, I went to a one-day electronic music festival in Bristol called Tokyo Dub, at which I first hooked up with Tara, who is now my girlfriend of two months and our converging tastes in music have taken us to numerous gigs all over London, so that’s eaten up a fair amount of my time. I also had the pleasure of attending an NFL game in Wembley, which was fantastic, I have a season ticket for next year (I also played fantasy football for the first time this season, ended up coming 5th of 10, next year shall be different). So in effect I basically extended my summer mischief into the autumn and winter, branched out with my writing some more and spent far too much money, so now I’m back into serious mode. I have 9 months to find a job, a room to rent and settle in a new city, I am more motivated, more pragmatic and have a lot more time. I’m taking this year very, very seriously. People say that every year and I’m no exception but with everything that’s been going on with my life, I can’t not start taking a more serious approach, I owe it myself, I owe to my family and I owe it to Tara, who has plenty on her plate at the moment too. I refuse to be a deadbeat boyfriend, a deadbeat son or just a deadbeat.

So that about covers it really, I have no plans to do any kind 2013 wrap-up as such, but in a nutshell:

Films:

Gravity

Pacific Rim

The World’s End

The Hobbit

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Stoker

 

Games:

Bioshock Infinite

The Last of Us

Papers, Please

DayZ

GTA V

Ni No Kuni

 

Albums:

The Mouse Outfit: Escape Music

Zomby: With Love

Congo Natty: Jungle Revolution

Atoms for Peace: Amok

R.A. The Rugged Man: Legends Never Die

Czarface: Czarface

Nine Inch Nails: Hesitation Marks

Calibre: Still

Thundercat: Apocalypse

Machinedrum: Vapor City

Boards of Canada: Tomorrow’s Harvest

FaltyDL: Hardcourage

 

HAPPY 2014! Especially for all us Year of the Horse compadres, let’s make it a good one, not going to get another for 12 more years.

 

Weekly Poem #40

Teacher

 

 

He stepped into the light, walled by the cawing cries of serialized fists

That fly left to right and ignite the imaginations of uneducated nations.

Impatience for a salient creation of visceral violence to silence older urges,

The turgid many lap up his acrobatic, fantastic feats and feast on his limelight.

 

He is so much more.

A minded peaceful core.

An usher to an unknown door.

So far above this flurried furor.

 

Kicking and screaming into gunfire streaming, spotlights steaming and wide-eyed

Gleaming; creaming cohorts up and down, spinning nunchucks round and round

And hurling heavies to the ground. Pound! Bang! Smack! Wang!

Fists of fury speak a unique slang and streak through silver spotlight pangs.

 

Made of water, stone and cloud.

A man who wants to show us how.

His voice still speaking through his tao.

Bruce is still with us, even now.

While It’s Fresh In My Mind: Thor: The Dark World

Remember the films that were born out of the superhero movie trend in the 90s? Yeah I’ve tried to forget them as well, but it’s interesting looking back and examining exactly why it is that they failed so badly. A big part of it was pure stagnation, a combination of ‘topical’ cold-war references and Richard Pryor had already killed Superman off before the 90s even started and Joel Schumacher was making sure that Batman wasn’t far behind, but that doesn’t account for Spawn, Judge Dredd, The Phantom, a previous attempt at Fantastic Four that never even made it to release and one at Captain America that unfortunately did. It wasn’t until the near-end of the decade when Wesley Snipes started killing vampires that things took a dramatic upturn, with Sam Raimi’s silly but undeniably fun Spiderman reboot and Bryan Singer’s unbalanced but perfectly toned X-Men leading the charge.

 

That could have very easily been a flash in the pan though, given what ended up happening to both of those franchises (though I’d argue that Raimi gave us a far better Spiderman than the more recent iteration), it was what came later that really validated comic-to-movie adaptations, they ceased to be a genre. If you look at the biggest success stories from that world in recent memory like Nolan’s Dark Knight and the entire Avengers franchise you find that a lot of those films take the hero aspect into account but don’t fall into the trap of simply being another hero movie, another duel between good and evil as old and worn out as the chalk painting of a man fighting a lion in a cave in Tanzania. The best comic-to-screen adaptations use the vast source material at their disposal and experiment with other genres and build something more distinct, more interesting, a bit like, y’know, that of a comic series. The best issue of Batman I ever read (although admittedly I’ve not read many) pushed his part of the story into the background and instead focused on chronicling the grim history of Arkham Asylum in a chilling tale of misdiagnosis, schizophrenia and death. Unfortunately though I’ve recently noted that the films that helped set this trend have given way to everything going backwards again.

 

Since Avengers Assemble came out last year the separate franchises contained within it have all gone off to do their own thing again and so far as I’m concerned the results haven’t been very enticing. Iron Man went from a satirical black comedy about the complete destruction and reconstruction of one man’s colossal ego to something which could almost be described as a knock-off of The Incredibles and now we have Thor: The Dark World. Let me preface this by saying there are things about it that I really liked, the sense of peril elicited by bringing the fight to Asgard, the continuing dramatic strength of the internal conflict rippling through the Norse royal family and their denizens and the retention of the gorgeous aesthetic laid down by the first film. But the fact that they took one of the most interesting, refreshing franchises to be brought to the screen in recent years, arguably the one with the most potential and turned it into a clichéd, predictable battle between light and darkness all built around some magical super-weapon is a very bad omen so far as I’m concerned. The first Thor movie was great, the sense of peril wasn’t overblown (especially since a small US town and a planet of ice giants are the only things put under threat), the drama was insular and the contrasts between Asgard and Earth weren’t dwelled upon. It was a story about family, acceptance, greed and self-control. The sequel is about a dark elf trying to turn everything dark for no discernable reason other than his being evil. Not a great set-up, especially when you put him next to Loki, one of the most rounded, interesting antagonists of recent memory (his presence in this film is definitely one the best things about it). The idea of creating this massive franchise conglomerate was definitely an enticing one but if all the films end up falling into the same trend then I fear we won’t get past the second Avengers before things take a turn for the shitty. There’s no rule written anywhere that every single film has to be a massive, sweeping adventure story and there’s almost limitless potential within both the source material this is all being drawn from and the cinematic world in general. For my money the best superhuman (you can’t really call it superhero) film to have come out in the past few years was Chronicle (dir. Josh Trank), I actually ended up naming it one of my favourite films of 2012, it took the idea of accidently being endowed with powers and turned it into a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and meaningful story about identity, puberty and suffering. Releases on the horizon like Edgar Wright’s Ant Man and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy seem to bode well for a more imaginative output in the near future but if the Thor and Iron Man sequels are indicative of a slew of ‘safe’ franchise plays by Marvel then I can’t help but think The Avengers movement will end up being remembered as a failed experiment and that will be a real shame.

While It’s Fresh In My Mind: Pacific Rim (and a bit about Dredd and Limitless)

Fucking hell I loved this movie. Wow. More often than not with these reviews my MO is to provide a satisfying, context creating build up to what I actually thought of them but with this I can’t hold it in any long, I adored this film and I want to scream about that adoration from the highest rooftop; or maybe just go and see it again. The ‘while it’s fresh in my mind’ model might suggest that I’m writing this mere hours after walking out of the cinema, perhaps even minutes, but it’s actually been a couple of days. The film has been ‘fresh in my mind’ that entire time, it’s haunting my every thought. See, with these big, bombastic summer films there’s three categories: the shitty ones (an unfortunate majority), the ones that thrill you while you’re watching them and linger for maybe a few hours afterwards before souring in your subconscious as the flaws come to bear and the ones that you walk about of knowing you enjoyed them, but the full extent of that enjoyment becomes clearer and clearer with time until all you want to do is drive back to the cinema and pitch a tent in the foyer. Pacific Rim waited until my attention was fixed and then carefully planted a glorious parasite in my brain that’s getting bigger every day and will continue to do so until it rivals a Kaiju for size, by which time I’ll probably have seen it 100 times (and be broke).

Stepping back a few paces, I will admit that my love for this film is purely rooted in the world it lives in, it doesn’t inhabit the same head-space as American Beauty or Oldboy or Alien or Metropolis or any of the films that I class amongst my all time favorites, the ones that inspire me. Speaking however as a massive advocate of the rubber suited, pyrotechnic, rip-roaring world of the Godzilla pantheon, it’s the best film I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve written before about how much I love monsters and how they’ve continued to figure as a completely literal facet of storytelling for centuries, probably even millennia and Pacific Rim is well aware of that. I think Guillermo Del Toro has a very similar mindset to mine with regards to these things, he’s an outspoken fan of the film Dragonslayer, for example, which is possibly my favourite 80s fantasy movie and he’s previously attempted to get a film adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ off the ground. Pacific Rim is an unabashed love-letter to that world and a wonderful addition to it.

A summary of the premise might make it seem as if the film is attempting to get all of the context out of the way so that it can focus uniformly on the monster battles, but that’s very far from the truth. In any case, the upshot is this: an inter-dimensional rift between two tectonic plates opens at the bottom of the pacific ocean and gigantic monsters or kaiju (Japanese for monster and the common name which all the monsters in the Godzilla pantheon are known by) begin to emerge from it, ever more frequently until the survival of humanity is drawn into question. The human countermeasure introduced is the ‘Jaeger Program’, Jaegers being towering mechs big enough to combat the kaiju directly and effectively. The catch is that a Jaeger has a neural piloting system which causes too much strain on a single human mind, so two pilots have to ‘drift’ and essentially exist within the same head-space in order to pilot one of these behemoths. It’s a brilliant means of contextualising the human drama of the film, since the pilots have to have a strong mental and emotional connection to allow them to do this. The central pilot (played with a careful, vulnerable charm by Charlie Hunnam) befalls a tragedy in the prologue and turns his back on the Jaeger game (with is defined as a new age form of celebrity status) but when the world’s governments begin to consider dispensing with the entire program in favor of just building a really big wall his former commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) pulls him back in and into a difficult partnership with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, ever the revelation), a newcomer with a distinctly ambiguous yet clearly personal stake in the dangerous world of Jaeger/kaiju brawling. This all might sound a tad stale but the outstanding quality of the cast means that these archetypal characters all carry some real depth and during the initial hour or so you spend getting to know them before the action starts, a strong pathos begins to prevail. That in itself is a master-stoke of scripting, after the explosive opening the film is in no hurry to pick the action up again, instead using various ‘reintegration’ plot devices to really build up the core characters so that we’re actually concerned for their fate further down the line. Films like Prometheus, which was in so much of a hurry to start killing people off it actually forgot to tell us who they were, could learn a lot from this approach.

However excellent the characterisation is though, it’s still just a bonus on top of what we’re really all here for. The action sequences are absolutely superb and they are perfectly woven into the film’s structure. Rather than a series of short fight scenes interwoven with dialogue, there are two main ones which are each at least twenty minutes long, I wasn’t keeping time. Both these scenes are in and of themselves as varied as they are exciting, the bigger, longer second act throwdown could almost be a short film in and of itself with a definitive beginning, middle, low point and conclusion. The Jaeger and kaiju are all distinct from one another and have their own personalities, whether it’s a simple as ‘the fat kaiju’ or ‘the Jaeger with 3 arms’ or the more principal ones that stay with you like the central Jaeger ‘Gipsy Danger’. I’ve always been more of an advocate of practical effects over CGI but I can appreciate that with monster movies like this rubber suits and miniatures aren’t an option anymore (as wonderful as that would be). Pacific Rim has some of the best CG I’ve seen in any movie, not necessarily the most detailed (Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes that trophy) but the most imaginative and in fact the most beautiful. There’s an ugly charm to the bioluminescant glow of the kaiju and a real weight to the way the Jaeger move, while some of the pure effects shots are just beautiful. The first shot of the film is set up as a shot of the stars before being revealed as silt coming off of the ocean bed, it’s a clever transition and a stunning piece of effects work. I didn’t see it in 3D but from what I hear that’s definitely worth doing. The attention to detail is another thing that really brings this film to life, from the historical context of the prologue to the integration of kaiju remains into human architecture, this film has been considered from every angle and constructed with all the love and care we’ve come to expect of Del Toro. In my Harryhausen tribute I said that I one day hoped to able to breathe life into a story the way he did his creations in a way that honored his legacy, I think with Pacific Rim Del Toro has provided his own Harryhausen tribute and it’s wonderful. See it.

 

Before I wrap it up I just want to add in a quick aside about two other films I watched at home recently. The first was Dredd. I remember having seen the trailers for it and thinking that it looked fairly appalling as well as quite possibly a rip-off of The Raid (it isn’t, they’re just eerily similar in premise), but having watched it, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s an extremely colourful film and some of the slow-motion cinematography is simply stunning, owing the the plot central drug ‘Slomo’ which causes the mind to perceive time at 1% of it’s normal rate. Karl Urban makes for an ideal Judge Dredd and in spite of clearly being out of her comfort zone, Olivia Thirlby gives an excellent performance, ditto Lena Heady and Wood Harris, in fact it’s just an excellent cast all around. It’s a high quality action film and some of Alex Garland’s best scripting in a fair while. Limitless is the second film and just to make it 3 for 3 I’d recommend checking that out too. The premise (that being a drug that allows you to access all of your brain) is great and the film does some really interesting things with it, the way the colour palette is used to exemplify the presence of the drug’s influence is masterful and the building perspective from singular to collective is very well implemented. Exploring the inner workings of human perception is a really interesting way of increasing the scope and intelligence of a film, a quality which oddly enough, all 3 of these films share to some degree, the narcotic and psychokinetic aspect of Dredd, the integral ‘drifting’ concept of Pacific Rim bringing memory and emotional context to bear and the integral driving force of NZT in Limitless and how being a more effective person can lead to the utter destruction of personality. So yeah, all excellent, clever, thrilling films.

 

Preview of My Next Piece of Writing

I’ve been reasonably busy for the past few weeks, I’ve started getting things figured out for my upcoming move to Birmingham and in anticipation of my being out of work for half of July and almost all of August, I’ve been picking up more and more shifts at the pub. With all of this going on it’s hard to find time to write, I’ve seen a couple of new and older films and heard a few albums but none of them have given me enough to say to warrant a column about them (in summary: Iron Man 3 – pretty good, Blue Valentine – really good but excruciating, Hellraiser 2 – OH GOD WHY, Star Trek: Into Darkness – fucking awesome, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories – wonderful, Grimes’ Vision – lovely). As far as fiction goes I have if anything more irons in the fire than ever before, I’m still writing poetry on a weekly basis (as you might have noticed…), actually reading one in public this sunday at an open mic event in Cambridge but my most prominent project is a new short story, one which is likely to end up being quite substantial, probably around 30,000 words, maybe more. Just to keep things flowing evenly I thought I’d shed some light on that. It’s set in the same fiction world as a story I published on here quite some time ago called The Masons of Daggermound. It’s not fantasy, the world it’s set in is medieval, but has an eco-system and climate more comparable to Australia than Britain, there’s no magic or monsters, it’s based on a time which is usually associated with fantasy. I liked the world so much after I finished Daggermound that I thought it’d be cool to write some more shorts set in it, perhaps with an eye to creating an entire compendium of them. Anyway I digress, instead of explaining what this new one’s about, I’m going to take a leaf out of the latest addition of ‘how to publicise a blockbuster’ and let you read the few pages of it, complete with the deadline I’m setting myself to have it done by (that way I have no excuse to let it slip into carbon freeze like I did with Exit Via the West Window, which could thaw any day now, I promise, Leia’s got that weird outfit on and everything, she’s in the palace, I won’t torture this metaphor any further). So, without any further preamble, here we have it:

 

 

Gull’s Rise wasn’t merely named for the physical characteristics of the city, sitting as it did atop a vast limestone cliff, sliced across the shore of the Laughing Sea, but for the path leading northwest out of the city, initially following the coast and then veering sharply inland. This road ultimately led to a fork, one path following Shepherd’s Canal and the other leading to Bloodfoot Valley, Crimsontown and everything that surrounded it. All the locals knew that these two roads could be reached easily and safely via the more northerly inland road, which was wider as well as being a well-known trade route. Unfortunately for the 3 travellers lead by the intrepid young trader, Clark, outsiders tended to have little knowledge of such a preference or why, considering how much more direct it was, people avoided the coastal road, until they took it.

 

“So… Many… Gulls…” Darius choked, wiping the last of their white detritus from his scalp.

 

“It seems like someone could have told us they nest along that road.” Sophia said.

 

“Well, lesson learned, needless to say I’m never going that way again.” Clark said

 

Sophia sighed, shrugged and jerked her satchel more comfortably onto her shoulder as Clark picked an errant feather from his hat. Thankfully since the gull incident the road had widened and quieted, splaying out into the dusty red expanse of Bloodfoot, half valley and half desert. Some vague protrusions were visible in the middle distance, towns and hills; but it was difficult to distinguish which from what because the blistering sun was twisting the air so heavily. As far as any of them could see the only movement from any distance was coming from the odd tumbleweed from far or the skitter of a skink or beetle from near, neither perspective could detract from the overbearing knowledge that they had a long, long way left to travel. They’d been travelling for just shy of a fortnight and Gull’s Rise had been their last real respite for some time, by day’s end they’d be deep into Bloodfoot, leagues from a soft bed or warm welcome.

 

Darius had just about managed to pick the last speck of bird shit from his thinning hairline when a noise managed to puncture the subconscious hum of prickling heat and singing cicadas. They all turned to face the gathering onslaught of dirty drumming, the approaching cart. At first it was little more than a black blur but as it wobbled into clarity they could see that it had come from Gull’s Rise, the flag conveyed as much. Both the driver and his second were wearing stately leather jerkins and had short swords strapped about them, city guards. The cart shuddered to a halt just ahead of them and the second dismounted and clambered into the back. When he emerged he had another man by the arm, a man with a sack over his head and his hands bound. The guard cast him to the floor violently and walked over to Clark, standing less than a finger’s length away from him when he finally spoke.

 

“Take your friend back, he’s no longer welcome in Gull’s Rise.” He snarled.

 

“Understandable.” Clark said, ever aware of the thread between their heads, promising to tighten into impact at a moment’s notice. “What exactly did he do? When he left him last night he was only drunk.”

 

“Take a look for yourself.” Said the guard, moving back towards the barely human heap on the ground. He removed the hood and there was Weldon, stubbled and thick eyed, dried mucus lining his mouth. For a while he just lay there, counting stars or flying sheep or whatever else his mind was conjuring, then he struggled to his feet and shook himself to loosen the sand. Sophia and Darius wore looks of concern while Clark just watched, perhaps with a smidgeon of disdain but ultimately uncaring, or appearing to be.

 

“He’s had a generous amount of black-eye soup, by my reckoning.” The guard continued. “He’ll be fine in a few hours, just don’t do anything to stimulate him.

 

“How do you mean?” Asked Sophia.

 

“Bright colours, interesting shapes, long words, nothing that his mind can latch on to. It’s as much for your benefit as for his.” Said the guard as he walked back to the cart.

 

They were gone as quickly as they arrived, heading back towards the city. Darius cut Weldon’s bonds and they all watched as he slowly composed himself. Before he could offer any further explanation, Clark wordlessly carried on up the road, leaving deep moody craters in the sand with his steps. The rest could do nothing but follow after him.

 

It was several miles before Weldon actually made any attempt to explain himself, he occupied that time examining his hands and making peculiar humming noises that didn’t bother Clark but made Sophia very uneasy. Several times she asked him if he was all right but he’d barely respond apart from the odd eruption of laughter from the depth of his stomach. Further down the track they came upon a small roadside temple to Estar, patron God of riders, where Sophia suggested it would be wise to stop and rest. While she carefully separated out a few items from her bag to leave as tribute (and tried to keep Sid, their mule, from eating any of it), Weldon’s pupils shrank and his sense returned.

 

“How long was I gone?” He immediately asked.

 

“Hard to say, you were gone when we left you last night, but your condition… Progressed, shortly thereafter.” Clark replied coldly.

 

“Why did they arrest you?” Darius asked.

 

“Oh, something to do with the temple of Harnan, not sure what I did exactly but I remember that it didn’t smell very good.” Said Weldon, scratching his head. Sophia almost laughed, but held it in.

 

“And people have a hard time believing we’re on a pilgrimage…” Said Clark.

 

“No matter, it’s Lyra’s monument we’re going to, nothing to do with the patron of masons.” Weldon replied.

 

“Still, you haven’t done our credibility any favors.”

 

“You worry about yours and I’ll take care of mine.”

 

Clark kept his mouth closed for a while after that, waiting somewhat impatiently for Sophia to finish praying before they picked up and moved on. Darius led Sid while Clark kept out in front, gingerly examining his map and compass, periodically letting the latter slide down his wrist so he could drip water against his neck. Sophia and Weldon walked alongside one another just ahead of Darius.

 

“Do you remember anything from last night?” Sophia asked.

 

“I remember asking about your clothes, is that right?” Weldon replied.

 

“Yes. You seemed perplexed by the simplicity of them.”

 

“He has a point, don’t you think?” Clark interjected, without ever looking back. “You’re a handmaiden to a princess, you’d think someone like that would wear clothes a little more befitting of their station.”

 

“Not for travelling. Besides I don’t own the clothes I wear to tend to Princess Scapa, they’re only borrowed, I don’t even know if I’ll be allowed back once I’m done with this.”

 

“I think you look fair fine no matter what you wear.” Said Darius.

 

“Thank you Darius.” Sophia replied, with a turn and a soft smile.

 

As the sun dipped, the heat crept back and a slight dusky mist fizzed to the surface. The red dust lining the air caused the sun to ooze like a halved blood orange as it submerged itself into the horizon, inch by inch. Around the pilgrims wildlife began to stir, monitor lizards chased down a last meal before the air became too cool for them, the odd scorpion would emerge, slow and woozy from a day’s sleep and small birds would dart between shrubs trying to recall their nesting ground in the dwindling light. Just as Clark and company were beginning to discuss their own sleeping arrangements a dark shape rose into view from behind the splaying hand of a large ghost gum tree. A castle.

 

As they drew closer the lingering light began to wrap itself around the structure in thin orange vines, revealing the rifts in the brickwork, the arrow slits and the battlements. It certainly wasn’t the largest castle, four guard towers, a dried up moat, what appeared to be three halls besides the central keep. There was little sign of ruin, the odd scorch mark or weathered brick, but no crumbled walls or eroded foundations. The group circled it several times at Clark’s insistence, scoping it, getting the measure. Weldon and Darius were both initially rather excited at the prospect of staying the night in it, provided they could find a way to lower the drawbridge. They soon discovered that it was, rather inexplicably, operational from the outside. There was a crank on the wall nearby, all they needed to do was climb into the dry moat and out the other side.

 

“I’ll go” Darius said.

 

“No argument here.” Clark said, with a shrug. He turned to the others and they shrugged likewise, so off Darius went. He was able to operate the crank with relative ease and the bridge descended like a slow, seized arm before it hacked into the rough ground with steely shrrk and the group slowly made their way across, keeping a close eye on Sid, who had no great affection for bridges of any sort. The uninhabited state of the structure had been evident from a distance by a lack of light, but upon closer inspection it was far more perplexing. The interior of the castle was devoid of weathering, rot, rust and wildlife, almost as if the residents had simply vanished. By the time they’d managed to coax Sid over the bridge and move inside the keep it was far too dark to have a proper look around, so Sophia and Darius built a fire in the grand hearth and they laid out their bedrolls near it, still somewhat confused to find that all the operational fireplaces were at least one floor off the ground, if not higher. The grand hearth was on the penultimate floor of the keep, towering above all else. In any other state Clark would have questioned these discrepancies but between hallucinating companions and bird attacks he was far too tired to think of anything other than a decent night’s sleep. The following morning however, his weary mind was provided the opportunity to chew on something substantial.

 

 

 

When Clark rose the sun had been up less than an hour, the fire had long since burnt out but the morning warmth, intertwined with a gentle kiss of cool wind, was comforting. Weldon was still asleep and Sophia had just risen, by Clark’s measure, since she hadn’t yet changed out of her smallclothes and was setting about her morning prayer to Lyra, for which she used a small ebony likeness with crystal eyes, as befitting the scripture. Her prayer usually took about ten minutes and she adhered to it diligently. Darius however was nowhere to be seen, which was unusual, as he tended to be the heaviest sleeper of them all. Clark paid little heed to the matter and set about dressing himself, smoothing the outcroppings of his unkempt yellow hair down to accommodate his red wool cap. This last process took him almost as long as Sophia’s prayer as well as a generous amount of spit, Clark’s hair rarely did what it was told, unlike Sophia’s ceaselessly immaculate auburn ringlets, which the men could only assume she got up very early indeed to attend, since she was always awake first. When she finished and packed the statuette away they roused Weldon and unwrapped some salted beef they’d bought in Gull’s Rise to break their fast.

 

By this time the sun was thumping against the stone walls and Sid was quietly murmuring for his own breakfast. Darius was always the one to tend to Sid but he was still nowhere to be seen. Sophia was nervous of getting Sid’s portion of oats wrong and Clark didn’t care, so eventually Weldon clumsily set about doing it, muttering something about missing his palfrey from the time he’d spent as a soldier (doubtlessly his favourite topic). Just as he finished up, a very pale, quivering Darius emerged from the far-side stairwell and padded his way over to the head of the table.

 

“And where exactly have you been?” Asked Clark.

 

Darius didn’t respond, he was still shaking quite violently. His mouth was contorting as if to form the words he retained, but no sound was coming out.

 

“Are you alright?” Asked Sophia.

 

“I…” Darius said, it was all he could manage to summon.

 

“I wouldn’t bother.” Said Clark “He probably had a nightmare.”

 

“Leave him be Clark, he’s traumatised! Here Darius, drink some water.” Said Weldon, walking over. Darius drank deeply from the skin and then took some heavy, lingering breaths. Sophia and Weldon drew in close to hear what he was going to say, but something interrupted him. Waaaaaaaaugh. One loud, long, deep blast, then three more. A war horn.

 

The group slowly edged up the stairwell to the top of the tower, the horn still sounding a deep, throaty growl at regular intervals. When they reached the top and peered over the battlements, the reasoning behind Darius’s stricken state became painfully plain. There was an army at the gate. By Weldon’s count there were two thousand men lined up in formation a few hundred yards from the drawbridge (which was still down), all on foot, mostly wielding crossbows and pikes. The red fangs adorned on their banners was unfamiliar to all of the pilgrims, none of them had ever been this far southeast. Most of the force stood completely motionless, save for the one mounted man, little more than a lively speck, galloping up and down the ranks. The entire party were now almost as dumbstruck as Darius had been, but amidst the continuous howl of the horn below, Clark found the time to seize Darius by the scruff and close the distance between the terrified boy’s nose and his own to a finger’s width away.

 

“Why didn’t you tell us about this sooner!?” Clark raged.

 

“What was he supposed to say, Clark?” Asked Weldon. “”In case anyone’s interested, there’s an army at the door’? This strikes me as one of those ‘seeing is believing’ circumstances.”

 

“Well what do you suggest we do?” Asked Clark, dropping Darius.

 

“Let’s go down and talk to them, they obviously have the wrong idea.” Said Sophia.

 

“I’ll do the talking.” Said Weldon, nobody argued.

 

Down below, the troupe gingerly approached the lowered bridge, with Sophia holding a hastily constructed blotchy grey flag (the nearest they had to white) above her head, contorting her drained façade into a smile as best she could. As they reached the edge of the drawbridge the sole rider approached. From above he’d been little more than an overly energetic tick but now he towered over them atop his black destrier, which couldn’t have been more than sixteen hands but still cut a threatening figure with its rippling, muscular legs. He himself was clad in the kind of armor that befitted a man of high station, a knight or a commander, perhaps both. His breastplate was emblazoned with the same markings as the banners his host were flying. He slid from his horse and walked over to Weldon and Clark, smoothly removing his helm as he did so. His face was hard and weathered, peppered with light grey stubble, which somewhat covered the deep rivets that ran up to his dark brown eyes. His look however was one of perplexity, he seemed genuinely taken aback, yet the first words to slip past his lips sounded as rehearsed as wedding vows.

 

“I am Commander Jace Blackwood and we are the legion of Crimsontown, lay down your… Arms and surrender or we will besiege this castle and lay you down to rest. Who commands here? What is the strength of your host?”

 

“Leave this to me.” Said Weldon, stepping forward. “Commander, I am the only party present of the stature to properly address your established statute and further parlay these matters. I am Weldon Weathers, late of the legion of Oxcross. Might we discuss terms of peaceful and amicable discourse?”

 

“What’s the matter with you?” Asked Jace. “Are you drunk?”

 

“Probably.” Weldon admitted, shrugging.

 

“Well take the advice of a man of my… Statute and refrain from talking or I’ll lesson you in what it feels like to have your innards massaged by a mailed fist.”

 

“I see…” Said Weldon, recoiling.

 

“If I might interject,” Said Clark, stepping forward. “I’m Clark Oakes. We’re just travellers Commander Blackwood, we have no host nor any line of defense, we just rested the night here.”

 

“It’s just the four of you?” Jace said after a long pause.

 

“Yes.” Clark replied.

 

“You aren’t from around this area, are you?”

 

“We’re not, I’m from the City of Kestrels, and the others are from the northwest too.” Jace let out a long, lingering sigh, so Clark continued. “We were surrendering as we came out.”

 

“How’s that?” Said Jace, massaging the bridge of his nose.

 

“The white flag?” Replied Clark.

 

“I thought that was a banner. It isn’t white at all.”

 

“Well, it used to be…” Sophia muttered, lowering the makeshift assembly.

 

Jace said nothing for a time after that and eventually got back on his horse so he could address his forces, who he told to march back to Crimsontown, a notion that didn’t appear to displease them overly, judging from the haste of their reformation. Afterwards he rode back to the group and dismounted again, then walked across the drawbridge into the castle, gingerly beckoning them to follow his lead. He spoke as he went.

 

“As you doubtlessly noticed, the drawbridge opens from the outside, you had no reason to close it, but if you had you’d have realized that you were trapped, the crank on this side is broken, it only shuts the drawbridge, can’t open it.”

 

Weldon moved to speak but Jace held his hand up and kept walking.

 

“The story is the same with these portcullises, if you tried to shut them from the inside it would take a remarkable amount of strength and effort to get them open again, thus creating two fairly significant obstacles for a defending host that can be easily negotiated by an invading one, but it gets better.”

 

The four of them were lead up to the lowermost battlements above the gates, during the walk across Jace had pointed out grooves in the ground spreading like veins all across the ground floor, he suggested that they were probably intended to carry water, but that when the braziers were lit they leaked oil into these rifts and threatened to set the entire place on fire. Telling scorch marks across much of the castle that had been more or less invisible the previous night suggested that this had happened many times before. The story was the same on the walls.

 

“Further” Jace continued. “Look at these battlements, they’re far, far too low, such that an impact from a catapult would shake any archer straight off, then there’s the murder holes.”

 

“Murder holes?” Sophia asked.

 

“These grates here, intended to carry boiling water and pitch and other horrid things onto the enemy below, but what you can’t tell from here is that they’re angled so that all of the aforementioned nasty substances would end up on the heads and shoulders of your own men, not the ones you’re keeping out.”

 

On the way up to the towers, Jace briefly called attention to the arrow slits, which were just about too narrow to ever allow any arrow through them and more disconcertingly the slanted floors in many of the larger rooms, which coupled with the portcullis issue meant that anything hot or oozing that found its way in would chase you to the door then devour you with little hope of escape. The chandeliers on the ceilings were also a problem, heavy iron, sharp and very poorly fitted and therefore easily dislodged. As Jace led them up to one of the two lower towers, making note of the narrow stairwell, all started to become clear.

“And finally, this.” Jace said, gesturing forward. “These mangonels may seem ordinary, but as they are now there is an absurd system of chains that prevent them from firing, if you can remove this obstacle then you’ll discover upon firing that the stopper beam is so loosely attached that it will almost immediately give way. The effect that this action achieves is that the mangonel will fire its payload straight into the castle, a payload that is on fire, might I had, because all you’ll find here to load it with are balls of straw which you can douse with oil. Welcome then, northern pilgrims, to Ragged Point, the single worst castle ever built.”

 

Ragged Point

Available to read online: July 9th 2013

Weekly Poem #13

Cradle Circus Blues

 

A fine morning for a weary waker, welcome to the Cam Cradle,

Last bastion of bedlam, the synaptic circus of the survivalist.

Your timing is impeccable; we’re showing all green on the traffic tower,

The skyward vigil, he’s reading calm airwaves, perfect for a tour.

We’ll take the riverbed, we’ve run out of roads and instill

No trust in tornado trenches and lightning scars.

Pay no mind to the foragers; they’ll follow their scents

Down sinkholes and flooded basements for dredge treasure

And dead metal, errands for willing fools.

Try not to startle at the dust unsettled beneath the corpsed

Mondeo, made by some future ruler, all eyes and teeth.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, before the midday boil

Threatens to ignite the storm-spores and lower skyteeth.

There are far better deaths out there than being incised, moled and mangled.

You pause to flinch perhaps at that splintered shadow yonder?

The work of the artisans, young Frankensteins who comb the bald beach

For bones to sculpt into fresh souls, vast insects with jawbone claws,

Goring giants with three-toed tusks all painted pulsating, something old,

Something new.

Passing by the rails down to the old press where tinkers toy with solder

And brew it into life-blood; marry iPods to gramophones to echo out an old voice.

A ventriloquist, perhaps a head on a stick.

Mind the gap as we cross past the Fitz, the pastime monument to memories

Of yester glory, a sad sickly joke now home to the scholars who bustle

About like bristles on God’s broom, trying to gather up the spilt ideas

Before the settled sands drink them all away.

Ignore the tented terrace in the square where the mating halls stand erect,

Waiting to propagate a revived reminiscence of the former, it’s not as fun as it sounds.

Final stop, weary waker, the green once named for a savior, now a vagrant pillow.

You might stagger to see the sorted sleepers lining the dirt, but you behold true wisdom.

These sauro-sapiens took the braver pill and bathed in Nedry’s venom instead of

Twirling the arrow, let themselves smolder away into the shadow grave our seniors dug.

So join us, lay down your worries and help us weigh down the curtain for the scene

Change, amongst the ghouls of Cambridge gone to join the ghosts of Carthage.

Leave your English tongue, your hind legs and your digits.

Ray Harryhausen: A Tribute to the Captor of My Imagination

I know right, two posts in one day, I’m in danger of pulling a muscle, but I had to post something about this. Mere minutes ago I found out via the paradoxical, infuriating fountain of knowledge that is Facebook that one of my childhood heroes, Ray Harryhausen, has passed away at the age of 92 (he would have been 93 next month). It might seem somewhat odd for someone of my relative youth to hold a practitioner like Harryhausen in such high regard, since his last cinematic work was back in the 1990s, but for whatever reason I was exposed to a slew of high concept fantasy films from his era as a child and they inspired me endlessly. I still have an old, weather-beaten copy of ‘The Art of Ray Harryhausen’ sitting atop my bookshelf. I spent an entire module’s worth of my art GCSE focusing on his work and even sculpted a tribute to the bridge scene from It Came From Beneath the Sea for one of my end of year projects, much to the disapproval of my purist, Frida Kahlo obsessed teacher. For those who are unaware, Ray Harryhausen was a pioneering stop motion artist, model maker and has been dubbed the master of pre-digital special effects. His trademark, meticulous animation work has resulted in some really iconic, legendary cinematic moments, the skeleton fight from Jason and the Argonauts, The Kraken from Clash of the Titans, the clockwork owl from Clash of the Titans, the cyclops from 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the prehistoric creatures from One Million Years BC and Mysterious Island and the coliseum scene from 20 Million Miles to Earth. As a child moments such as those both thrilled and terrified me, but more than anything else they gave me a sense of wonder that computer generated effects have never quite been able to replicate (with the exception of Jurassic Park and later Lord of the Rings).

Ray Harryhausen is one of those people you appreciate all the more when you know the details of his work. Model making and stop motion animation are heavily time consuming practices that require a tremendous amount of patience and the kind of attention to detail so precise that even thinking about it gives me a headache. He worked from the late 30s all the way up to 2002 when two young contemporaries helped him complete his last remaining fairy tale short, The Tortoise and The Hare. Even beyond that he carried on working, finishing a nearly 20 year long construction of a breathtaking statue of Livingstone being attacked by a Lion in 2004. His film work continues to resonate today, Peter Jackson, John Landis, George Lucas, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet and numerous other heavyweights class Harryhausen as a key source of inspiration, with Jackson going so far as to claim that he would never have made Lord of the Rings had he not been inspired by Harryhausen’s effects. Similarly, I don’t think my attitude to storytelling would be quite what it is now were it not for my early exposure to him. I may not write stories about myths and monsters and I may have lost interest in working in the film industry, but my imagination will always be locked in that gear. Ray Harryhausen was one of the few truly visionary individuals to grace the world of fiction with his presence. Everything he touched came alive, you believed in those skeletons, that sea monster and that magnificently terrifying bronze colossus. You believed because he did. Artistic, creative passion can come through in any medium and while special effects are oft maligned as cold, soulless and perquisite, their origins represent the most stunningly soulful artistry in the history of high-concept cinema. I’m still waiting for my skeleton scene, my patient, meticulously crafted tribute to Harryhausen, this is my eulogy, really, despite the title, eventually I’ll honor him by channeling the inspiration he gifted me with. Stories need monsters and they need to feel alive. If I can summon just one murmur of the life giving breath that Ray Harryhausen imbued all his creations with to lace my writing, I’ll know I did right by him.

Rest in peace Ray Harryhausen. You inspired generation upon generation. Your work will flicker in my mind’s eye as long as I live.

Fun with Custom House Banners

This morning I discovered a page here that allows you to create your own family banners, complete with sigils and mottoes a-la Game of Thrones. The idea is that you make one for your own family, but I didn’t take much notice of that imperative, since my family symbol would probably be a labrador and our words would probably be ‘But you said you stopped smoking last month’. So instead I decided to create a few ‘crossover’ banners with other franchises. It’s not hard to figure out which is for what, so here they are:

JoinTheRealm_sigil JoinTheRealm_sigil(2) JoinTheRealm_sigil(3) JoinTheRealm_sigil(4) JoinTheRealm_sigil(5) JoinTheRealm_sigil(7) JoinTheRealm_sigil(8) JoinTheRealm_sigil(9) JoinTheRealm_sigil(10)JoinTheRealm_sigil(11) JoinTheRealm_sigil(12) JoinTheRealm_sigil(13)

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