Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black is a horror novella by the English Author Susan Hill, first published in 1983.

The novella is set in an unspecified time period, probably the Edwardian era. Trains and cars exist, but horse and carriage are still the dominant mode of transportation. Like Dracula, the story begins with an English solicitor who in performing his duty travels to a strange place haunted by a supernatural evil. The narrator Arthur Kipps travels to a remote village of Crythin Grifford on the North-Eastern coast of England. He is there to deal with the estate of a reclusive widow, Alice Drablow, an old client of his employer. While attending her funeral, he sees a mysterious woman, clad in black, who is no ordinary woman. Soon Arthur must struggle for survival against her.

The Woman in Black is a deliberately old-fashioned English ghost story, as exmeplfied by M.R. James. The ornate prose style, the period setting and the gothic atmosphere convincingly re-create the genre. The story doesn't betray it's origins in the 1980s at all.

While the story does not need interpreting to be enjoyed, I find the backstory of the ghost of the title interesting from a gender perspective. It is revealed that the ghost of the title was in life Jennet Humfrye, the mother of illegitimate child, who was taken from her and then died in a tragic accident. Her grief for the child and her anger at the injustices committed against her has led her to haunt the living as a vengeful spirit ever since. Kipps can't help but pity Jennet Humfrye in life, even as he is horrified by what she became in death. The evil is supernatural, but has it's origin in the evils of Victorian patriarchal society, which can certainly be interpreted as a subtle feminist statement.

The Woman in Black is an excellent gothic horror story. The act of reviving an old genre can turn out like the corpses re-animated by Herbert West, but here the results are truly alive. The tale is genuinely creepy, the horror coming from the carefully created atmosphere and suspense.  It is recommended reading for everyone who is interested in gothic horror and the traditional ghost story.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Dracula is a 1897 Gothic novel by Irish novelist Bram Stoker.

                                                  Cover to comicbook version of the novel 
                                                  by Spanish artist Fernando Fern├índez.  
                                                  The source is the blog Book Graphics 

Most people reading this probably already knows the story, but I will introduce it nevertheless. The novel opens with an excerpt from the diary of an English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, who is traveling to Transylvania in Romania in order to met with Count Dracula. The purpose of the trip is for Harker to help the Count buy a house in England. But he soon discovers that Dracula is not human, but a vampire, whose purpose in moving to England is to feed on the blood of the innocent and spread vampirism. He must be stopped.

Dracula is a novel which can be interpreted in many ways. You can interpret the novel as a peculiar example of the then popular genre of Invasion literature, which was about Great Britain being invaded by foreign forces, typically the Germans. The book is peculiar to the genre in the sense that it is about a supernatural foreign invader, not a military threat, but thematically the book fits perfectly into the genre.

The vampire is often interpreted sexually and Dracula is one of the main reasons why that is. The vampire attacks have a frightening sexual element to them, as they are disturbingly similar to rape.

You can also interpret the novel as a battle of the modernity vs old superstition. The main characters come from highly developed nations in Western Europe and North America and are thoroughly modern and scientific in their outlook, which is even reflected in how they record their experiences using then modern inventions like the typewriter and gramophone. 

Dracula in contrast represents the old and medieval, being a folklore creature and an aristocrat from an undeveloped part of Eastern Europe.

Because of their modern outlook, the main characters are slow to realize that vampires exist. The Dutch physician Abraham Van Helsing in contrast can be said to represent a necessary synthesis of the old and the new. He is a man of science, yet knows the old superstitions well. He is therefore the first to realize that vampires are involved and thus comes to lead the fight against Dracula, using both modern science and old folklore to do so.

There are many more interpretations, Franco Moretti for example interprets Dracula as a metaphor for monopoly capitalism.

Yet the novel can be read simply for simple enjoyment, as it is an excellent and suspenseful horror novel, in which Stoker uses the epistolary form effectively. The book is old-fashioned in some respects, particularly it's treatment of gender and the foreign, but the tale is told so well-told that it deserves it's place as a classic of gothic horror.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Petals of Blood by Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

Petals of Blood is a novel by Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, author of The Wizard of the Crow. It was released in 1977 and was the last novel he wrote in English. I've earlier reviewed his later novel, Wizard of the Crow.

It begins with the murder of two businessmen and an educator in the fictional Kenyan city of Ilmorog. Four suspects are arrested for the murders. They are the local school principal Munira, the labour union activist Karega, the barmaid Wanja, and the shopkeeper and former Mau Mau rebel Abdulla.

The book tells of the friendship of these four characters and of their relationship to the murdered men. It is also the tale of Ilmorog's development in only a decade from pastoral village to modern city.

The story is a kind of microcosm of Kenya as an nation, especially post-independence. And it is not a pretty one. For Wa Thiong'o, the dream of a free, equal and independent Kenya is betrayed by it's leaders, such as president Jomo Kenyatta and his successors. Instead Kenyans got an unequal society in which the majority work in poverty while a small capitalist minority get rich by exploiting the working class. This elite does this by selling the products of the labour of the working class into the international capitalist system, just as the colonizers did before. Thus the system of exploitation established during English colonialism continues unbroken, just with native Kenyan leadership.

This leadership is thoroughly corrupt. When the citizens of Ilmorog suffer from famine, the main characters lead an exodus of most of the population to Nairobi to ask for help from their parliamentary representative. They walk the whole way, only to met a corrupt politician who gives them empty promises in return.

The government is not only corrupt, but is also authoritarian. People in opposition are either arrested or murdered. Of course, the Kenyan government proved Ngugi Wa Thiong'o right when they arrested him for his criticism of the regime shortly after this novel was published.

The book shows that the regime was right to fear him. This is powerful writing. The storytelling and prose are excellent in themselves, and show a novelist at the peak of his art. Yet they also tell the story of Kenya, as Wa Thiong'o sees it. Fiction, as a mirror to ugly reality. If the wrath of the author against injustice was canalized into satirical fantasy in the Wizard of the Crow, here that anger is served to the reader raw. The evils of life in modern Kenya are portrayed with utter realism, without any compromises.

Yet, as bleak as the novel is, it ends on an inspiring note of hope, not only for a better Kenya, but for a better world. This hope of course remains unfulfilled; Kenya and the world haven't really changed much since this book was written. Yet this only means that Petals of Blood remain as timely as when it was written, a true classic of world literature.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

V. by Thomas Pynchon

V. is the debut novel by Thomas Pynchon, first published in 1963.

As usual with Pynchon, the plot is complex to the point of confusion. The main plot is about Herbert Stencil, who is on a search for V, which is an abbreviation for something or someone, probably a woman. Stencil learned about V from his dead father, Sidney Stencil's notebooks. V appears in various places at various time periods, including Egypt in 1898, Florence in 1899, Paris in 1913, Southwest Africa in 1922, and several times in Valletta, Malta.

The novel also has sections which are heavily influenced by the Beat generation and describe the adventures of a group of bohemians called "The Whole Sick Crew" in 1950s New York. These center around a drifter called Benny Profane.

Despite this being a debut novel, in V. we met Pynchon fully formed, coming seemingly directly from the head of Zeus. Here we all of Pynchon's trademarks such as his absurdist humour, his labyrinthine plots, weird names (such as Rachel Owlglass or Kurt Mondaugen) or his musical prose. He blends together high and low culture, with V. having elements of the detective, science fiction, adventure and spy genres.

The meaning of the novel is, as always with Pynchon, obscure. He never answers the central question of the book: what does V. stand for? With each page, the answer seems to change. V might very well stand for Valletta, Venezuela, Botticelli's Venus or even a fictional place called Vheissu.

In the end, the most probable answer seems to be that V., at least the one mentioned in the notebooks, is a woman, with many names, but which all begin with V, such as Victoria Wren, Vera Meroving and Veronica Manganese. It's possible that she is Stencil's mother.

As said, she appears in various places at various times. The common denominator between these episodes seems to be that they are times of violence and crisis. Does she cause them in some way? Is  she somehow connected to the horrors of modern Western civilization, such as war, imperialism and genocide?

Again, the question is: what does V stand for? Maybe there are several answers, or none at all. It's possible that Stencil's search for V. is meaningless and ultimately is just one of mankind's attempts to give meaning and order to a chaotic universe, the futility of which is a theme also explored by Pynchon in his later books.

The novel also ask the big existential questions, that were so popular in the post-war era when the novel was written. It's made explicit that the search of V. is Stencil's way of giving meaning and purpose to an otherwise aimless life. It's his sisyphean task. The purposeless, drifting lives of Benny Profane and the Whole Sick Crew are of course also related to his existentialist musings.

But even if V. remains a mystery, it is an entertaining one. Even if you are not up to solving it's puzzles, one can always be swept along by Pynchon's humour or his prose. One can't help but be impressed that this is the work of someone who was only 26 years old.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Without Frontiers: the life and music of Peter Gabriel by Daryl Easlea

This book is a biography of Peter Gabriel, written by music journalist Daryl Easlea.

This book caught my interest as soon as I saw it in the library. I'm a big fan of Peter Gabriel's challenging and innovative music, both with and without Genesis.

The book focuses on Gabriel's music career, both Genesis and solo. It tells of the making of albums like Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Gabriel's unnamed third solo album and So. We also learn of his activism for human rights and against injustice like apartheid. In this, he has worked with organizations like Amnesty International and Witness, the latter which he co-founded. Gabriel has also brought attention to non-western forms of music by co-founding the WOMAD festival, which features musicians from all over the planet.

The book focuses on his work and largely ignores Gabriel's personal life. This is probably because Gabriel has always been a private man. And anyway, his home life has apparently been rather uneventful, with the exception of the collapse of his first marriage.

While Easlea hasn't interviewed the subject of the book himself, he has interviewed several of Gabriel's friends and collaborators. Easlea has also done extensive research and uncovered many articles and interviews. He has then synthesized this extensive source material into a coherent narrative.

Easlea is very thorough and has a remarkable eye for detail. He not only describes the creation of each album, but also the reception it got among fans, the public and the critics.  He even analyses each individual track of Gabriel's major albums. The book also comes with a comprehensive discography.

To his great credit, Easlea takes Gabriel's work with Genesis seriously. Far too many critics dismiss Genesis or even progressive rock in general as pretentious nonsense, while acclaiming Gabriel's solo career. Easlea doesn't do any of that and even emphasizes the continuities that exist between Gabriel's work with the band and his solo work.

The result is a good and very readable book about a remarkable man. A man who both in his music and activism is Without Frontiers.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Keith Emerson 1944-2016

Keith Emerson, keyboardist in the bands The Nice and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, has died.

He is usually regarded as one of the most technically accomplished keyboardist in rock music, a true virtuoso. He first came to notice as a member of a band called The Nice, that existed between 1967 and 1970. They were pioneers of progressive rock; one of the first bands to combine rock music with classical and jazz. A staple of their repertoire was rock interpretations of pre-existent classical and jazz pieces.

When their guitarist left the band, they did not replace him and continued on as a trio, with only drums, bass and keyboards. The Nice therefore became one of the rare rock bands to not have a electric guitarist, with the music relying instead on Emerson's considerable keyboard skills.
Important Albums by The Nice include The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack, Ars Longa Vita Brevis and Five Bridges

Here is a video of The Nice peforming America from West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. It shows Emerson's energetic and distinctive performing style, which includes plunging knives into his organ keyboard to hold notes.

After The Nice broke up, Emerson formed a new progressive rock band: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, ELP continued in the same vein, doing without a lead guitarist and with plenty of classical "covers". They were one of the most successful rock bands of the 70s, selling albums by the truckload and playing to outsold arenas. It was in my opinion well-deserved, they produced a solid body of work in the period 1970 to 1974. Granted, their albums after that period were rather lacklustre. They took a long hiatus during the period 1974-1977 and were never the same afterwards.

Their best albums are probably their self-titled debut, Tarkus and Brain Salad SurgeryHere is The Three Fates, composed by Emerson, from their first album.

With Keith Emerson progressive rock music has lost of it's leading lights. Emerson was an innovator and keyboard virtuoso. May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy for 3DS

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy is a trilogy of video games, so-called visual novels, directed and written by Shu Takumi and developed by Capcom. It consists of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations.

They were orignally developed for the Gameboy Advance 2001- 2004, but were first translated into English when re-released for the Nintendo DS. In 2014 the entire trilogy were released in a single package for the Nintendo 3DS. It can be bought and downloaded from the e-shop.

Visual novels is a video game genre mainly developed in Japan, that place a heavy emphasis on story and text, rather than gameplay. The experience is like reading an interactive novel. They are most similar to the western genre of adventure games, but are even more story-focused. I've previously covered another game in that genre: Hotel Dusk

You play Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney. Though, in the third game, you get to play briefly as other defense attorneys. Phoenix, like Perry Mason, only takes on cases in which the defendant, his client is innocent. They are always cases of murder (one is reminded of Van Dine's seventh rule.) Phoenix does not only prove his clients not guilty in court, but also acts as a detective and solves the case, revealing the true murderer.

You help him do this through two modes of gameplay. The first in Investigation. You investigate the crime scene and other places of interest. This plays like traditional point-and-click adventure games. You examine everything that seems interesting (using the DS touchscreen) and talk to everyone about everything. This way you gather evidence about the case. Everything in the game revolves around this evidence.  When you gathered sufficient evidence, you move onto the Trial mode of gameplay.

During the trial, you have to prove your clients innocence in court, using the evidence you gathered. The Prosecution calls up witnesses, which give testimony in favour of the prosecution's point of view that the client is guilty. However, this testimony nearly always conflicts with the evidence you gathered. The witness is lying or mistaken. It's the player job to point out these contradictions, by matching up ("presenting") the evidence with the statement in the testimony that it contradicts with.

Phoenix then uses that very evidence to figure out the solution to the murder mystery and prove the guilt of the real murderer. During this, he is asked questions by the judge and prosecution, which the player must answer by choosing the evidence that supports Phoenix's claims or the right answer from multiple choices. If the player makes a mistake during all this, you get a penalty from the Judge. Get enough penalties, and it's game over.

This is more exciting than it sounds. No description can capture the feel of actually playing the games. It's tremendously fun to point out these contradictions and you feel very smart when you figure something out and pick the right evidence.  The cases are well thought-out murder mysteries, which are satisfying to solve. It's an stimulating intellectual challenge,

And while it is a challenge, it isn't too difficult either.  The games moves from investigating the crime scene to the trial only when you have all the evidence you need. The deductions you have to do are all within reason. Phoenix himself does the real difficult stuff. So you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to play this game.
Of course, the legal system in these games don't correspond to any legal system in reality. It would be an article of it's own to point all the inaccuracies.  One of the most basic must be that the defense must prove the innocence of the defendant, rather than the prosecution prove their guilt. Though I have read an article that argues the the games are a satire of the Japanese legal system, in which prosecutors have inordinate power and nearly every trial ends with a conviction.
The games are very storydriven. They are not called visual novels for nothing. The majority of the experience is reading text. Thankfully, the games are well written. Shu Takumi can write. They are thankfully well translated into English too.

Their tone is generally comedic, often wacky to the point of absurdity.  Characters often act in a bombastic manner, which is deliberately meant to be funny. Phoenix Wright himself, for example, has unrealistic spiky hair, tends to shout, bang his hands on the table and literally point his finger at those he is accusing. And he is rather restrained compared to most of the people he meets during the cases, who are often rather colourful characters, to put it mildly. Character names tend to be puns or otherwise meaningful.

Thankfully, this is actually rather funny. I often found myself laughing at some clever turn of words or some clever name. A good example of the latter is a narcissistic man whose name is Luke Atmey.

And all this comedy doesn't mean that the game lacks a serious side. Phoenix deals with cases of murder, after all. There's plenty of drama to be had, which somewhat surprisingly works. The game are not only funny, but moving. Character reveals depths beyond their funny quirks. The game not only has bombastic humour, but dramatic subtlety. The player is given serious messages of the necessity of trusting other people and the importance of accepting the truth, no matter how horrible it may seem.  It's a sign of how well-written the games are that the balance between the absurd comedy and serious drama seems rather natural.

Much of the drama comes from a single story arc, which develops over the course of the three games and comes to a satisfying conclusion in the final case of the third game. Phoenix is accompanied and assisted in his quest by a girl named Maya Fey who is a spirit medium. Her power is very much real. This larger story arc revolves around Maya and her family, who nearly all are spirit mediums.

The games are focused on the text, but they have visuals, graphics. And they are a case of making the most of what little you have. All the visuals in this game are handdrawn, not computer-generated. The backgrounds are static, while the characters are traditionally animated. The games mostly lack cutscenes, the few that exist are all very short and simply animated. The games instead rely on still images to illustrate events.

This system, admittedly, doesn't look slick at all. You can see the limitations of time and data space. Each character has only a limited set of expressions and poses, which they constantly reuse. The character animations are very simple. Switches in animation can be very obvious and clunky. When a character enters or leaves the scene, they simply fade in or out.

But the hand-drawn graphics are very charming. The experience of playing these games is more like reading an illustrated book, than playing a typical video game, which is rather pleasant. And the visuals are well drawn. The backgrounds are gorgeously detailed. The characters are very expressive; the amount of expressions are limited, but they manage to say so much with them, that it all works.

The games also of course have sound. Mainly sound effects and music. The amount of music is like the character animations rather limited. But most of it is rather good, especially the exciting tracks that play when Phoenix is having a winning streak with his deductions (like this track from the first game and this from the third).  The games also have minor voice acting. It's just some phrases, such as "Objection" and some others. It's not much, but it adds some atmosphere to the proceedings.

In the end, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has become one of my favourite game series of all time because it's excellent writing and exciting gameplay. If you like reading and intellectual challenges and don't mind the humorous tone of the games, be sure to play them. It can easily be found on the Nintendo 3DS e-shop.