Saturday, December 30, 2006

Chronicles of the Magi: part 6

"He's lying," Hormoz said, glancing over at his companions who were likewise indisposed, sifting through racks of scrolls in the royal library. "He's got an incredibly powerful will, so I was only able to sense surface thoughts, but those were enough to tell me he isn't at all interested in worshiping the child. He'll kill him as soon as he knows the identity."

"Why were we brought here then?" Gushnasaph asked. He had just cast a spell over the scroll he was holding, and the letters on it were changing from Hebrew characters to Pharsee. "This isn't helping us find the child at all."

"Our purpose was not singular," Larvendad reminded him. The old man had no need to change the lettering on the scrolls he was running his hands over. As he touched them, huge reams of knowledge were poring into his mind. It was a wonder he could carry on a conversation at all. "Our awareness of Angra Mainyu's plots to destroy the child made us responsible for keeping him safe as well. Little good it does the world if we find this child of light a corpse."

"There's so much about the Hebrew Messiah in these writings," Hormoz said. "But to make any sense of it without being one of these sheep farmers or their priests...blood sacrifices and smelly festivals. I can't make any sense of it at all."

"Difficult to do without knowing the whole of their scriptures and the rabbinic writings," Larvendad said, running his hand over another scroll. "But I am beginning to get a clearer picture."

"So what are we here for then if you're planning on ingesting all the knowledge in this room before I've even read one scroll?" Gushnasaph asked, exasperated.

"Even I cannot carry on a conversation across hundreds of feet with many ceilings, floors and walls between," Larvendad replied. "And I want us to stay together. I wouldn't put it past this mad king to kill us or throw us in his dungeons." His hand scanned over a very old and fragile scroll...and his eyes rolled into the back of his head.

"Ahhhh..." he moaned. "Here it is...'But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.'"

Friday, December 29, 2006

Chronicles of the Magi: Part 5

The arrival of a merchant train in the city of Jerusalem attracted little attention. Throngs of people came and went from the holy city, and this group appeared to be Jews of the diaspora, making their way upon a pilgrimage to sacrifice in the Temple. Their accents were decidedly Babylonian, and their servants and slaves of Parthian dress, but the lords themselves were dressed in the custom of southern Judea.

The bulk of their caravan remained in the outer city while a small delegation comprised of the three lords and a retinue of guardsmen entered the city proper, staying in one of the most luxurious inns in all of Jerusalem. Messengers were sent forth with one question on their lips. And soon all of Jerusalem was talking of the three eastern lords who had arrived in the city of the Jews. They had come to find a new king. A king from heaven, it was said. And while the three lords never phrased it so, the word "Messiah" began circulating along with the accounts of these men and their fabled riches.

And as such messianic rumors inevitably did, they reached the ears of Herod the Great's advisors. Herod the Great, an Idumean whose love for Hellenistic culture had endeared him to the Romans, whose ambition to restore the Jewish temple made him the king of the Jews, and whose treachery and willingness to go to any lengths to gain and retain the throne had left a path of assasinations behind him. Herod the Great, who here, at the end of his years was dying of a disease that ate away at his vitals and chewed his innards. Assasinated by his own avarice and lust. His magicians could do nothing to avert the outcome of the disease, and though his days were numbered, he still considered them his days. The days of Herod the Great. Not the days of any messianic usurper. And when the rumors of the magi's search reached his ears, he summoned them to the palace.

"You're Parthians," Herod said when Gushnasaph, Hormoz and the venerable Larvendad stood before him. Larvendad had recovered from his nearly fatal wounds during the desert crossing, and had finally stood on his own feet when the group had crossed the fabled Jordan river.

"We hail from the ancient kingdom of Persia, yes," Larvendad replied haughtily. He had lived long enough that the idea of his national identity being Parthian was still foreign to him. In his mind, he was still a Persian.

"And you have come here seeking a king?" Herod asked, grazing from a platter of decadent food beside his throne.

"Indeed," Larvendad said. "We have seen a sign in the eastern lands that spoke of the birth of a new king. A great king. We thought you, as lord and protector of this land, might know something of this birth."

Herod spread his hands in ignorance. "I know nothing of any king being born. Certainly not of my loins," he said, "unless you're talking about that bastard Antipater."

Herod stole a glance away from the old man to the middle aged man standing beside him. That one was staring at him in a way that pierced him to the core. It worried him. Whether or not there was any truth to these men's search was irrelevant. The people had made it a reality; a reality that would need to be crushed. At this point, anyone could step forth and make the claim that they were the one these men were seeking. It wouldn't matter if the three endorsed the pretender or not--it would likely result in a bloodbath, and Rome was watching. He would have to be crafty, as he always had been.

"You have my assistance in every way possible. Please make use of the archives my scribes have--we have copies of most of the sacred writings of our people, which may serve to shed light upon your search." Herod smiled and raised a glass of wine to honor his new guests. "And when you achieve your goal, find this new king and let me know who he is so I may also come and worship him."

The words flowed from his lips without hesitation. A lesser man might fear the wrath of the gods, but the fire in his bowels had proved to Herod many years earlier that he was already cursed by the gods. If this child, this king, was truly the messiah, a voice of the gods on earth, then Herod would have his revenge on the gods for smiting him with this disease. Eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Chronicles of the Magi Part 4

The caravan moved out of the ancient and virtually abandoned city of Babylon, crossing the Euphrates at the great bridge between the ruins of the Esagila, the temple of Marduk and the Etemenanki, the great Ziggarut, the fabled tower of Babel.

Hormoz looked back at the city as the sun began to rise, casting long shadows in the empty streets.

"The council are all that are left now," Gushnasaph said, stopping his horse beside Hormoz's.

"You were always right about the city," Hormoz told his young companion. "Alexander's coming only sped our destruction."

"And now?" Gushnasaph asked. "Are we headed towards a future, or are we travelling headlong upon a fool's errand?"

Hormoz shook his head. "Even if I had not seen the ball of flame and light strike Larvendad's tower, seen it disappear, and then reappear within his eyes, even if I did not know that something essential about the universe has been changed, as was made apparent by the power of the blood magic our ancient teacher invoked, saving his life...I would know we are on the right path. I can feel fravashi whispers to me, telling me so. Every moment we remained in Babylon it was urging me to leave, to depart, to be gone. There is nothing left but death in those ruins. We are on a journey towards life, even if it is a fool's errand."

"Then your calling is higher than mine," Gushnasaph said, spurring his horse, "For I only seek a new adventure!"

Hormoz watched his young companion gallop to the front of the caravan, and smiled. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step Gushnasaph, no matter the motivation."

And so the caravan pushed westward, lead by the light that burned within Larvendad's sight like a star, always in his vision no matter if he were in his tent or behind the walls of a caravanersary. He could sense it in the periphery of his sight when his gaze was fixed upon the ground beneath them, and it haunted his dreams when he finally was able to fall into a fitful rest, aided by drugs inhaled through the smoke of the hookah. The men in the caravan who had traversed the great desert before were amazed, and spoke many times of how they had never made a crossing where so much shade was found to travel in, nor so many oases. Months passed, and they arrived at the southern tip of the Dead Sea. From there, they turned north, and moved into the land of the Hebrews, which presented a new challenge; the Roman occupation of the land of Israel...and the enmity between the nations.

"I don't suppose they've gotten over the business at the battle of Harran, do you?" Gushnasaph asked Hormoz with a grin. "After all, we did give them back their standards..."

"Thirty years after the matter," Hormoz replied. "We might need to leave the greater part of the caravan here and press on in disguise."

"And what would you suggest for a disguise?" Gushnasaph asked.

"The creator will provide," Hormoz said, pointing to another caravan approaching the water hole they were resting at. "Merchant train. Come," Hormoz waved a hand to the oncoming riders. "We have shopping to do."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Chronicles of the Magi Part 3

The council of the Magi had been formed over a thousand years ago, in order to maintain the balance between Angra Mainyu, lord of destruction, and Ahura Mazda, the uncreated creator. There were those who said that there was no balance, that the creator was more powerful than Angra, but if this was the case, then the world did not show it to be so. If there was more heaven than hell in the universe, then it was not apparent to the men who had formed the order of the Magi, and upheld its tenets while Babylonia rose to a mighty empire, and now in the days following its fall. The once-great Persian empire was a thing of the past.

And in Gushnasaph's mind, so was the council of the Magi. His posture before the assembled council said what his words could not; words of respect issued forth grudgingly from a mouth moving above a chin thrust high and proud. He clenched his fists to keep from speaking with his hands, a practice Larvendad found contemptible and had many times attempted to stamp out of his young pupil's public discourses.

"What you have told us is all second hand information," the high elder of the Magi told the young man. "You have gainsayed that these are the words of your mentor, who you have also reported is deep in a fever sleep, recovering from wounds inflicted by the demon which wreaked havoc upon his house."

"The demon did not incur the damage to the house," Gushnasaph said. "It was the impact of the great fireball that did that."

"A demonic entity to be sure," the high elder said. "We all know that destruction is the work of Angra Mainyu. And once again, as many times before, darkness has encompassed darkness -- the spirits of destruction undo their own work in the madness of their chaos."

Empty words. Poetic drivel...recitations made a thousand times instead of an evaluation of the reality before us all.

"Then you will not send a delegation to discover the identity of this new and great king?" Gushnasaph asked.

"We will not," the high elder replied. "Our place is here, in the lands of our forefathers, retaining the balance."

"The balance has been lost!" Gushnasaph blurted. He realized he was holding his hands out in a pleading posture. Dropping them to his sides, he lowered his voice. "The demon said as much. The king who is born is of the creator's side...and he is weak, and vulnerable. The demon revealed the Destroyer's plans to assasinate the child before he can grow to be a man and accomplish what he has come to do."

"So now we have the testimony of both a mortally wounded man in a fever as well as that of a servant of Angra Mainyu," another Magi spoke from the assembled throng, a sarcastic grin on his face. "Reliable evidence to be sure."

"Then I have only one more thing to report to you. These are my mentor's final words to you all: If you will not take the word of Larvendad, eldest of all the Magi, as relayed through his pupil Gushnasaph, prince of the Suren-Pahlav clan, then this is our farewell. We will go into the West to find this king, and to protect him as best as we are able, with all the devices of the Art and our own wealth. We abdicate our position upon this council. With us goes Hormoz the astrologer as well. We do not seek your approval, only that of heaven and of the creator."

A silence hung over the hall as Gushnasaph pulled three cloth bundles from a bag he had brought along and dropped them on the ornately tiled mosaic that made up the floor of the Magi's assembly hall. They were the ceremonial robes of their order. And with that, the young man turned on his heel and strode swiftly from the hall.

* * * * * * * * *

"Damn fools," Gushnasaph spat as his servants lifted Larvendad's unconscious form into a lush litter carried by four well muscled slaves.

"He knew they wouldn't listen," Hormoz said with a smile. "That's why he sent you instead of me. I'm sure your performance was far more dramatic than mine would have been."

"Perhaps," Gushnasaph said. "But if everything he whispered in his sleep is true..."

"How can we deny it?" Hormoz said. "We both saw the wheel made of fire and light. If that was not a manifestation of the sacred fire..."

Hormoz shouted an order to one of the camel drivers and checked his own saddle once again. He looked over at the younger man, whose face was full of doubt. "I'm surprised at you my friend. All you've ever spoken of is how this derelict city is full of ghosts, that our order is dead, that all the Art we possess is pointless if we aren't actually doing anything to maintain the balance. And now, we three have been given the opportunity to do something. To protect the very incarnation of the Sacred Fire."

Gushnasaph took a deep breath and turned his gaze to the night sky. After a moment, he turned his gaze back upon Hormoz.

"And where do we go?" Gushnasaph asked. "We have no direction, save that we are to head West. That will lead us directly into the sea!"

"I can see the path," came a strong bass voice from behind the curtain on the litter. "Clearer than I see anything else."

Gushnasaph leaped to the side of the litter and pulled back the curtain. Larvendad's eyes were open, staring in the direction of the West.

And his eyes were like the inside of a furnace, blazing with an inner fire...

Monday, December 25, 2006

Chronicles of the Magi: Part 2

The demon was circling Larvendad's prone form, keeping it's distance.

Why hasn't it finished me off?

He followed its progress with his gaze, watching its movements. The creature kept looking down at the floor, adjusting its distance from Larvendad from time to time. He could tell by the line of drool trailing from its gaping jaw that it wanted to close in and devour him, but something was preventing its approach.

The old man forced himself to a sitting position, replaced his hand over the leaking wound and pushed himself backward with his feet until he was up against the column again. Only then did he realized he had been mumbling under his breath the entire time, a nearly inaudible prayer to Ahura Mazda.

"The Sacred Fire surround me, enfolding me and protecting me..."

Larvender's blood had trickled into the grout between the floor's marble tiling...and around each pillar, the tiles formed a circle...inadvertently, his wound had created a circle of protection, albeit a weak one. Blood was more effective in containing such creatures. It was largely ineffective in a circle of protection. Fire was the element of protection, not blood.

And yet the creature was unwilling to even attempt a crossing...if a demon could sense a barrier of great power within a circle of containment, it would not test the boundaries. This one knew from experience that to cross Larvendad's inadvertent circle of protection would cause it great pain.

"It seems we are at an impasse," it growled, red eyes glaring at him. It sat down on its haunches and rolled its tongue across razor sharp needles. "But not for long. You will die, and the protection with you. I can wait."

As can I," Larvendad whispered.
* * * * * * * * * * * *

Gushnasaph was riding through the hills above the derelict city of Babylon when the sky exploded with light. He had shielded his eyes, but only momentarily. Seeing that the light, whatever its source, was in motion and headed for the tower of Larvendad, the young man spurred his horse into a mad gallop down the decline, weaving in and out of the ruins and vacant streets in pursuit.

After centuries of disgrace, the Sacred Fire returns to bless us, he thought as the wind whipped through his long dark hair. The light roared over his head, and he could see it better now. A white hot center, around which bursts of yellow, orange and red erupted in wing-like flames...and behind it, a tail of roiling, churning cloud the color of a furnace. As it neared its apparent destination, Gushnasaph uttered a prayer to Ahura Mazda in the hope that Larvendad was not in his observatory on this night.

The ball of flame and light hit the tower in an explosion of stone that arced out over the ruins of the ancient city and Larvendad's palatial grounds, now in disrepair. Gushnasaph reined in his horse to narrowly avoid being crushed by a piece of masonry the size of a man, then spurred his mount on, vaulting over the debris. He cleared the gardens and jumped from his horse the moment they reached the foot of the great wide stairs which formed the entrance to the house proper.

The old man will be glad for all the time I skipped on lessons running in the hills tonight, he thought to himself as he raced up the stairs. If he's still alive.

The gate had been torn loose from its hinges by shock the fireball's impact had sent throughout
the house. Rushing through it, Gushnasaph cried out his old teacher's name; "Larvendad!"


Heading rapidly toward the stairs which lead to the tower and the observatory, Gushnasaph entered the main hall, to see that one of the great columns had collapsed and shattered near the end it had fallen upon.

And fortunate it was that it did shatter, Gushnasaph thought, else it would have struck that other pillar and started a chain of falling pillars, bringing the whole house down.

Odd that it had shattered though. Larvendad's home was ancient - built in the times when slaves from all across the empire had made Babylon the shining city it once was. And it hadn't simply shattered...the marble about the base of the intact column was like sand...

And sitting amidst it, was the crumpled form of Larvendad.

Gushnasaph crossed the room in a few bounds and kneeled at the old man's side.

"The demon..." Larvendad whispered as Gushnasaph lifted him from the granulated marble.

"You're hurt very badly," Gushnasaph said. His eyes darted about the room - if there was a demon loose in the house, that could explain the shattered pillar. Then he spotted it.

Or what remained of it. A dark, spiderlike appendage with a wicked talon at the end protruded from beneath the fallen pillar.

"Fire and ash" Gushnasaph cursed beneath his breath. "What happened here?"

"The King...the King is born" Larvendad murmured, and fell unconscious.

Chronicles of the Magi: Part 1

In honor of my favorite aspect of the nativity narratives, I'm presenting a writing exercise I'm going to engage in over the twelve days of Christmas, namely to write for 30 minutes each day, doing a fictional biblical fantasy of the Magi's journey to find the Christ child.

A demon was loose in the great house. Larvendad, one of the greatest Magi in all of Persia, huddled behind a marble column, desperately clutching his bleeding arm. If the infernal entity had been any more corporeal when it had broken through the circle of protection drawn intricately upon the floor, the old man would have been eviscerated. As it stood, he'd likely only bleed to death in the next hour, provided the beast, now completely material, couldn't find him.

He could hear it moving around the tower where, up until today, Larvendad had practiced the arcane magic of his order. The dissolution of the protective circle had resulted in a backlash of energy that had thrown the old man clear of the room even as the demon had lashed out at him with its talons. He had caught a glimpse of the conflagration within even as he'd scrambled to his feet and raced down the spiral staircase, out of the tower and down into his palatial home.

What had gone wrong with the spell? The last time he'd lost control of an entity was when Babylon was still a thriving metropolis, before the coming of Alexander and the fall of the great and ancient Persian empire...before the dark days that he and his order sought to restore balance to...

Larvendad looked down at his good hand, clamped over his mangled arm and the blood that sluiced through his grip in scarlet rivulets. It was only a matter of time before he passed out from loss of blood; he'd seen it many times in the wounds of the Persian fighting men who had resisted Alexander's onslaughts...but he'd never been the one to bleed. He needed to get out of his house, get to the servant's quarters, to tell someone to go the house of Hormoz and tell him what had happened.

He braced himself and by pressing his back against the pillar and pushing with his legs, was able to rise to his feet. He felt light-headed and weak. How could he ever make it down another flight of stairs and out the front door, let alone all the way across the gardens?

I have offended the balance with an overlong life, and this is the price I am paying...

Larvendad took a stealthy step forward, which became a stagger all too easily. He crumpled to the cool marble floor, his hand slipping from its grip on his wound. He tried to lift himself from the floor, but the blood pooling about his body had made everything slick and unmanageable. He raised his head weakly to see an inhuman shadow fall upon the white marble from the torchlight upon the tower stairs...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Across the city, from the top of another tower, a man in his middle years stood with his eyes to the night sky. He glanced away from time to time, to consult charts and drawings he'd been making of the heavens, based upon Hipparchus's findings. If the Greek was right, and he often was, there was going to be a conjunction of two of the planets tonight, the ones the Romans called Jupiter and Saturn. It was the sort of astrological phenomenon which would not occur again in Hormoz's lifetime. Unless of course, Larvendad was good enough to reveal the source of his longevity.

Hormoz smiled ruefully. The old man would never reveal the secret; he was convinced that he was the only man worthy of so many years in the world. He had refused his secret to kings. Why would he reveal it to his apprentice?

He focused his attention on an area of the sky where he could already see Jupiter, shining brighter than any of the surrounding stars. Near as Hormoz could tell, the conjunction would also align itself with the constellation of Pisces--the fish. Everyone agreed that such a portent could only mean one thing; the birth of a powerful ruler, a great king.

There was a flash in the night sky, a great burst of light beyond anything the Magi had expected. He had seen comets, eclipses and the like, but nothing like this. It was beyond what the writings of other astrologers had chronicled during such a planetary alignment. Something else was happening here...

The light erupted from the point in the sky Hormoz had been focused on, then raced toward the tower of Larvendad's...

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Top 10 Movies of 2006 - Update

Latest update to the list!

1. V for Vendetta: It's a fairy tale dressed up in stylish graphic novel clothes. Cupid and Psyche, one more time, Beauty and the Beast, yet again, Phantom of the Opera without the singing...and it's fantastic. A wonderful piece of work beautifully filmed by the Wachowski Brothers. Highly recommended. Rating: 10/10
2. Miami Vice:
Got to see Miami Vice on DVD just last night at our Reese Family Christmas. I am a huge Michael Mann fan. I also watched Miami Vice religiously and dressed like Sonny Crockett back in Junior High School. I say that right off the bat because I know I love this film based on my bias. I love it for all the reasons I loved the original Vice. Mann's films are first and foremost about style. Substance is always there, but it's delivered in a manner which will either hypnotize you or lull you to sleep, "Last of the Mohicans" being the exception to this rule. While this film was generally panned by critics, I love it as an "extended 12 inch remix" of the original series. It followed one of the classic plots of the series; Sonny and Ricardo go undercover to break up a smuggling organization. Only this time things are longer, darker, richer, more violent, and done with a 21st century hip instead of an 80's one. Really, it's a "day in the life of" movie. There are no deep mythic concepts to draw upon (at least upon the surface--give me another, closer viewing and I'll likely find some), it's just a great cop drama. Rating 9/10
3. The Prestige: A movie that haunted me after I left the theater - its moral ambiguity, clever narrative sleight of hand and very capable performances followed me outside, and are lingering with me today. Also by contrast is the fact that I did not particularly like The Prestige in the sense that I think its a movie I'll ever see again. I might pick it up on video because I think it could be useful for teaching, with its themes of obsession and reality, or its non-linear storytelling. It is, however, a noteworthy film. I recommend it only on the basis that I could not anticipate other people's reactions to it anymore than I have finished formulating my own. I will not call it brilliant - it is a clever film to be sure, but like the Nolan brothers' earlier work Memento, I can't be sure if I've been enlightened, or just tricked.In addition, I have to say that while I was hoping to see some real magic, by the time it arrived on the screen it seemed anachronistic. It lacked the Borghesian subtlety and ambiguity the insertion of real magic into such a production necessitated. So one point off for being clever instead of brilliant, and one for being anachronistic instead of ambiguous. Rating: 8/10
4. Silent Hill: Rating - I haven't watched a film that gave me the creeps like this one did since I saw "The Ring" and I haven't seen a film expression of horror and nightmare as stylish as this since "The Cell". This video game adaptation by Christophe Gans is beautiful in a gothic sublime sort of way. I loved the first three quarters, but once our intrepid heroine descends beneath the town, I have to say that the film seemed to run off its course a bit, and in the last 10 minutes, was far too predictable in a Hollywood movie sort of way. I hate to break it to the writers of this moody, atmospheric piece, but the "twist" ending in horror isn't a twist anymore. A happy ending is. And to add, in my own opinion, backed by far too much immersion in narrative and literary theory, it was actually what this film's themes on mother-daughter ties, sisterhood, and revenge as redemption demanded. With a different ending, I would have given this film a 9. As it stands, I can only give it a 8. Points all lost for the gratuitous and unimaginative ending. Rating: 8/10
5. Superman Returns: I wanted to let this film be my top movie of the year, but there were two things that kept me from being able unecessarily long (ala King Kong) length (hey guys, Lord of the Rings was long because the book was, all right!? More footage does not equal better picture!) and a narrative element involving paternity that left me cold. Other than those minor foibles, I loved the movie, and Bryan Singer has done what I had hoped he would do - give us a Superman film that didn't suck. Loved the crashing airplane sequence. If I had a list for favorite scenes of the year...then Superman diving like a base-jumper to catch up with the plane would have been number one! Rating: 8/10
6. Underworld: Evolution: I've decided I didn't "get" the first Underworld movie. It had a much more epic scope than I was expecting, and while I found some of the narrative decisions contrary to where I'd have taken it, it was a very cool movie. Evolution is exactly what the sequel is...moving the chronicle of this world of vampires and werewolves along in an extremely satisfying manner. Maybe it was the mood I was in the day I watched it, but I have absolutely no complaints about this movie. It excels at being what it is - a B genre flick. Rating: 8/10
7. Pirates of the Carribean-Dead Man's Chest: Like I said in my prediction...Johnny Depp. And the man delivers. However, the film suffers from the same problem any "second" film does in a trilogy - we've already been introduced to the film's secondary world so that what was surprising and fresh in the first seems familiar. And familiarity can breed contempt. Thankfully, Bill Nighy as Davey Jones and his fishy crew provided enough effects eye candy on a regular basis so as to not keep making comparisons to the first film, while the action integrated enough new stunt work and swordplay to keep things interesting. Orlando Bloom's got enough distance between Legolas and any other character he plays now, and I found him easier to swallow as William Turner. Given Jack Davenport's complaint that everyone else got to have all the fun playing pirate-like in the first film, it was good to see Norrington's dark side this time around. All glowing praise aside though, while I realize this is a 'middle' film, it really did meander far more than it needed to. It was like Jack's wandering compass was a metaphor for the film's storyline. It went all over the place, but in the end, we hadn't really gone anywhere. I do like knowing there'll be a third installment next year. If film companies keep this up, will we be seeing a return to the serials of yesteryear? Rating: 7/10
8. X3-The Last Stand: It was good, but not great. Too many new characters introduced at the expense of already well developed ones. Ostentatious and simultaneously pointless use of powers, especially on the part of Magneto. Moving the Golden Gate Bridge is cool, but what's the point? Rogue got the shaft, to be sure. In my estimation, the trilogy had been building around her story. She was our point of focalization, and without her in that place, the whole storyline denigrated into one big mess. For the record, I think a more satisfying ending would have been Rogue returning to the team, powers intact at the point where Phoenix is stripping the skin from Wolverine. Rogue sneaks up behind, pulls off the gloves, and sucks enough of Phoenix's power for Jean Grey to regain control, allowing Wolverine to step in and do her in. That would have set any future sequels up for Rogue to have had the kind of power she had in the comics from draining Captain Marvel. And one more thing. Where the hell was Nightcrawler? Still, Wolverine got to cut loose twice, and there was a fast-ball special from Collossus...and Kelsey Grammar's Beast was spot on. Final word: I can only hope they're done, or they get a more competent director/screenwriter for a fourth installment. Rating: 6/10
Poseidon: Ship gets hit by rogue wave. Chaos ensues, followed by acts of bravado and more pandemonium as the ship slowly sinks. Yeah, its formula, and yes it wasn't as good as the original, and the characters were cardboard, but who cares? It delivered what it promised in my esteem. Thoroughly enjoyed it, like I sometimes enjoy a bacon double cheeseburger from Burger King. You know it ain't gourmet, but it's exactly what hits the spot. Rating: 5/10
10. Ice Age: The Meltdown:
Okay, I laughed at Sid the Sloth. And Scrat. But the rest of the film was mediocre and at times, just plain ridiculous. The animation wasn't up to par, and while I normally love Queen Latifah, I have to say she was the wrong choice for voice in this case. Rating: 4/10

And just for the record...I saw Clerks II, but there's no way in hell it's going on any top 10 list of mine. If this movie was Kevin Smith's apology for Jersey Girl...he's not done apologizing. My rating? 0/10.

Predicted List 2006
Note: Films can change positions on the predicted list until I see them. Then their position becomes fixed.

1. Superman Returns: I have to give the number one spot to my number one superhero since childhood. I still buy Superman shirts regularly when my old ones wear out, much to my wife's chagrin. I'm not thrilled with the little 'S' on the costume...I like a big shield. Might be compensating for something, but frankly my dears, I don't give a damn. Previews are making a believer out of me to be sure. I watched A&E's "Look, Up in the Sky! The Amazing Story of Superman": brought tears to my eyes...seriously.
2. Pan's Labyrinth:
Pan's Labyrinth, however, is the best surprise of the year, sneaking into 2006 on December 29. Billed as an 'adult fairytale', the only thing I needed to know was that Guillermo del Toro is the man behind the film. I loved his work on Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy and was unaware of Pan's Labyrinth until you wonderful people who visit Gotthammer brought it to my attention. I checked out the trailer and was blown away. Too bad the number one position is already fixed...
3. Miami Vice: It's a Michael Mann film...I have yet to see a Michael Mann film I didn't enjoy profusely. They almost always make it into my top 10 list for the year they're released. And I watched the original series religiously, in addition to dressing like Crockett in Junior High.
4. V is For Vendetta: The trailers moved this one from a 5 to the 4 spot...I've not read the graphic novel, but from what I've seen, this looks like one of the best films of the year. Very cool visuals.
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - Jonny Depp. That's all I have to say. Jonny Depp. It will be cool. Jonny Depp.
6. The Illusionist: The 'narf' in "Lady in the Water" left me cold enough to dump M. Night Shyamalan's latest prior to viewing, in trade for a different film starring Paul Giamatti, which intrigues me far more. The trailer reminded me of elements from a number of books I've enjoyed in the past few years, and is set in a period I love; turn of the century, 19th-20th. I've also been waiting for Jessica Beil to get a decent script, and this might be it. And Edward Norton is always good, even when the film he's in sucks.
7. Poseidon: Man who made "Perfect Storm" does capsized ship again...only this time it happens at the start of the film and the cast has a hope in hell of making it out. Loved the original, and Kurt Russell's one of my faves, so could be good!
8. X3: The Last Stand: Yeah, I know - the trailers are amazing...but there's no Brian Singer dammit...this could go very badly, you know?
9. The Prestige: I dropped Denzel and his Deja Vu movie because...well, I just like this style of narrative better. It's a personal bias, plus I really like Christian Bale's performances in the films I've seen him in. As I alluded to in my predictions about "The Illusionist", I've read a couple of works in this genre recently, specifically "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" as well as "The Book of Dead Days", and this film seems to capture some of that energy, given that it's based on a book in the same sub-genre.
10. Casino Royale: The Bond Franchise needed a face lift...and it looks like it's a gritty one. Here's to hoping they've returned to adapting the original books and letting James be a jerk, not just a suave ladies man with too many gadgets and not enough kickass. The buzz is that director Martin Campbell is leaning more towards character development than gadgets, so that bodes well. I'm keeping this one on the list for now.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Father Christmas

I'm a nut for Santa. The Father Christmas version, specifically. A few years back I did a photo manipulation/composite of some stock photography to create this wallpaper, which remains one of my favorite pieces, despite a few little glitches resulting from being in a rush to get it done. It's my little Christmas present to everyone. Hope your holidays are fantastic. I'll be starting mine in t-minus seven days.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Lovecraft’s Incarnation Inversion: How the "True Pagan" Stole Christmas

When H.P. Lovecraft stated in one of his letters that “the Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE” (1965, 60) it is doubtful he was speaking of mythology in the sense that Mircea Eliade meant when he said that “…in proclaiming the Incarnation, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Word, early Christians employed ancient categories of mythical thought” (Kleiner, 14). Lovecraft was simply stating that he was not a believer of the Christian faith, and because of this, it would be arrogant presumption to enlist Lovecraft’s work in an attempt to produce actual religious belief in Christianity. However, given the ability to compare the “Judaeo-Christian mythology” as “history metaphorized, that is, as metaphorical narratives” (Borg, 1219), I propose that by travelling Rudolf Otto’s via negativa of “darkness and silence” as a “means of arousing the numinous consciousness by artistic works” (Varnado, 208) the reader of “The Dunwich Horror” may through a process of inverted imagery, find the Christian story (specifically the Birth Narratives) provided with “a fresh excitement by retelling it as if it were a new myth” (Carpenter, 66).

Both Mark Lowell and Donald Burleson have observed that Lovecraft’s mythos “contain a perversion of what Joseph Campbell called the mythic cycle” (Lowell, 48). Lowell explains the monomyth as being a tale where “a herald calls a hero into a realm of myth and the unconscious where he confronts various tribulations and emerges with a boon for his fellow men” and contrasts this with Lovecraft, where “this realm of myth contains only sorrow, insanity and death.” (48) Burleson notes that the Whatley twins fit all eight stages of the hero monomyth “quite closely” (146), which is an inversion of who the reader expects the hero of “The Dunwich Horror” to be; on the surface, Dr. Armitage seems a more ‘heroic’ candidate (although Burleson notes with irony that in truth, it is the university guard dog who rips Wilbur to pieces who “has saved the world (148)).

In the majority of these eight stages Burleson uses Jesus as an example. In the case of the “miraculous conception or birth, as in traditional accounts of the virgin birth of…Jesus” (146) corresponds to the Whateley twins as “products of a sort of miraculous conception and birth, sired by the “god” Yog-Sothoth in May-Eve rites on Sentinel Hill” (147). The final stage of Ascension “as in the case of Jesus” (147) is achieved by the Whateley monstrosity “when the twin returns to the place of conception, the great table-rock atop Sentinel Hill”. In reference to the monstrosity bellowing for help from Yog-Sothoth, its father, Burleson says, “One almost expects, “Why has thou forsaken me?” The scene is a clear tongue-in-cheek parody of the crucifixion; the monstrous entity returns to the father” (145-146).

The comparisons and contrasts between Jesus and the Whatley twins are numerous. As Edward Ingebretsen writes:

“Born of the hardly virginal Lavinia, Wilbur is fatherless: spiritually adept at a very young age, he is early about doing the work of his unknown father. Lavinia’s son, in short, is a dark conceit of the Incarnation. Like Jesus, he is a god among us, monstrously conforming to our flesh. The people who have lived in darkness have lived to see a greater dark.” (160-161)

Jesus’ genealogy runs from the Jewish patriarch Abraham to Israel’s greatest King David (Matthew 1:17) while Wilbur and his twin are descendents of “the decadent Whatleys” (374). The strict morality of Jewish society requires Joseph and Mary to cover up the divine nature of Jesus’ birth so as to avoid “public disgrace” (Matthew 1:19, NIV), while Lavinia “according to the custom of the region made no attempt to disavow the child” (374). Where Mary sings a magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Lovecraft has Lavinia “mutter many curious prophecies” (374). Like John the Baptist for Jesus, Wilbur “makes straight paths” (Luke 3:4 NIV) for his monstrous sibling through the numerous renovations to the Whateley home, as well as in pursuing the Miskatonic university’s copy of the Necronomicon, a pursuit which leads to his death, and consequently to the advent of his horrible twin, emerging from the farmhouse when Wilbur dies.

At this point the “three wise men” enter the tale; “old, white bearded” (408) Dr. Henry Armitage, after studying the portents contained within the “curious manuscript record or diary of Wilbur Whateley” (397) calls a “long conference” (401) with “stocky, iron-grey” Professor Warren Rice and “lean, youngish” (408) Dr. Francis Morgan of the Miskatonic university. Like the Zoroastrian astrologers who followed a star to Bethlehem, these three travel to Dunwich, not to pay homage, but to face and perhaps destroy “the earth-threatening entity which…was to burst forth in a few hours and become the memorable Dunwich horror” (402). Since Dunwich, like Bethehem is as disturbed as “all Jerusalem” (Matthew 2:3) was at Christ’s advent, “in the end the three men from Arkham…ascended the mountain alone” (408) where they do battle and finally defeat the monstrosity.

These comparisons seem more like blasphemy than aids to “arousing the numinous consciousness” or retelling the Christmas story “as if it were a new myth”. As Ingebretsen notes, “Indeed, the story of Jesus, when viewed from Lovecraft’s point of view, could well be simply another case of an “intruding horror” (170). However, if one accepts Vijay Mishra’s definition of the Gothic sublime as “the “embodiment of pure negativity” into which the subject inscribes itself as an absence, a lack in the structure itself” (17), then it is precisely within a universe where “man is but an evanescent mote in the universe of stars” (Burleson, 148) and “the Elder Gods never truly died, but they could be aroused from their slumbers” (Bloch, xvii), a place that is “cold and negative, with no place for humanity in it” (Lowell, 50), somewhere “in close proximity to phases…wholly outside the sane experience of mankind” (Lovecraft, 408) where we can unwrap Jesus’ birth narratives from “a rhetoric of the Sacred”. Unhampered by the “The cloying contemporary fetishization of the Baby Jesus and his spectacular marketing at Christmas” the reader might find “the stories of the manger, the animals, the angels and the shepherds” no longer sentimentalizing and thus diminishing “the power of the awe-ful” but rather “would be read as disgusting, horrible, unspeakable.” (Ingebretsen, 158)

If the reader finds blasphemous shadows of the Christmas story in “The Dunwich Horror”, and thereby sees the tale from a Lovecraftian perspective, then perhaps the angel Gabriel will have good reason to speak the words, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 1:3, NIV). And perhaps like Mary, we too, will be “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29, NIV), as Ingebretsen suggests: “We’d be fools not to be scared out of our wits, as indeed we are when we shift our focus and see the Christmas story from a completely different perspective…” (171).

Works Cited

Bloch, Robert. “Heritage of Horror.” The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre Ballantine Books: New York, 1982, vii-xxii.

Borg, Marcus J. “Light in the Darkness.” Christian Century 115 (1998): 1218-1221.

Burleson, Donald R. H.P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings : C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and their friends / by Humphrey Carpenter. London: HarperCollins, 1997.

Ingebretsen, Edward. Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Kleiner, Elaine L. “Mircea Eliade's Theory of the Fantastic.” Visions of the fantastic : selected essays from the Fifteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts Allienne R. Becker, Ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, (1996): 13-18.

Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror.” H.P. Lovecraft: Tales Ed. Peter Straub. New York: Library of America, 2005, 370-414.

Lovecraft, H. P. Selected Letters Eds.August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Vol 1. Sauk City, Wis: Arkham House, 1965.

Lowell, Mark. “Lovecraft’s CTHULHU MYTHOS.” Explicator 63 (2004) 47-50.

Mishra, Vijay. The Gothic Sublime. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

Varnado, S. L., “The Idea of the Numinous in Gothic Literature” Romantic Reassessment. Ed. James Hogg. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität, Salzburg, (1982): 200-212.

Lovecraft's "Dunwich Horror" full text online

Images by Simon Bisley from "Illustrations from the Bible: A Work in Progress", linked from The Rion Web