Sunday, March 30, 2014

“You Must Have So Many Questions”

This is what Julia’s mother says, as she emerges from suspended animation after 30 years.  She has been stored in a box by the Ilaria Corporation, and most recently proffered as an incentive to return the Narvik virus to “the Scythe”.  He is Ilaria’s youthful assassin and son of the spectacularly evil Constance Sutton.  Julia’s mother does not have much time to answer her daughter’s questions, (such as “Why did you raise me in an underground bunker designed to look like a rustic cabin in the woods?”).  The Scythe, also known as Spencer, (“Don’t call me that!”), wants to achieve his mother’s goal of destroying Arctic Biosystems and just about everyone in it.  A climactic explosion ends the season finale of Syfy’s apocalyptic soap opera, Helix.

Alert viewers will suspect that not everyone perished in the blaze.  We learned on Saturday night that Sarah is pregnant, most likely with Allen’s child.  Major Balleseros, who episodes ago redeemed himself by saving the Inuit village from an Ilarian death squad, had just extracted from Dr. Hatake the names and locations of all of the Inuit children that Hatake had stolen and experimented on long ago.  Anana is in love with Balleseros, despite her brother Tuluk’s disapproval. 

Allen, Peter and Julia show up in the preview of the next season—cleverly inserted as “Day 235”, after the show’s format of labeling episodes with numbered days.  (Saturday night’s episode was “Day 13”.)  But Jay called the Scythe “Spencer” while begging for her daughter’s release, a ghastly mistake.  He has repeatedly told everyone not to call him that!  He attacks her with his favorite weapon, killing her.  Dr. Hatake falls at her side in the snow—but will probably recover, being an Ilarian.

This show is really tough on mothers.  (I am concerned about mother-to-be, Sarah Jordan.)

Meanwhile, the evil Ilaria Corporation has moved on to its next step in securing world domination.  It has released the Narvik-A virus in Puerto Rico, causing an outbreak of sangre negra.  The coming attractions indicate that the action will be shifting to France.  In the closing scenes, Allen and Peter appear to be part of some sort of underground, meeting clandestinely in a back alleyway.  Julia on the other hand has moved up in the world, leading a board meeting at an Ilarian branch office—around the table are a dozen of her silver eyed colleagues.

“You must have so many questions,” Julia’s mother tells her daughter, along with the show’s audience.  Is the immortality conferred by exposure to the Narvik-B virus really all that desirable? The first scene of “Day 235” shows Allen beating up and torturing an Ilarian businessman to get information about Julia’s whereabouts.  “You think this is the first time I have been tortured to death?” he seems to ask.  This reminds us of poor Gunnar from several episodes back, chained in the basement of a nearby abandoned radio station for 29 years after running amok with Constance Sutton.  Before he decapitates himself he offers the insight that “to live forever is to die ten thousand times.”

Both Peter, the hapless brother of CDC team leader Allen, and Jay, who is Julia’s long lost mother, appeared as disembodied beings in earlier episodes.  These events occurred while Peter was cryogenically frozen after becoming a zombie, and presumably while Jay was in suspended animation.  There is some interesting supernaturalism here:  were they spirits?  Astral projections?  Figments of Julia’s virus addled mind?  Both characters acted as Julia’s mentors and guides in their disembodied state.  Does the Narvik virus convey the ability to separate the soul from the body?

Fans will have additional questions, a few of which may be answered in the second season.

Constance Sutton makes a brief appearance at the end—at least the most identifiable part of her.  Her perfectly preserved head is tossed onto the Scythe’s helicopter as a distraction so that Allen can rescue Julia and one of the canisters of Narvik—hopefully the right one.  It is a “bit part” and hopefully we will see the rest of her in future episodes.  Allen is only able to retrieve the canister—Julia flies off with the Scythe to Ilaria HQ.

Helix returns to Syfy in early 2015.  For more information, see Helix | Syfy. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Reincarnation with Hallucinogens

The work of Lord Dunsany had enormous influence on writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, especially his earlier collections, The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and Time and the Gods (1906).  This influence can be seen in Clark Ashton Smith’s The Chain of Aforgomon, which was published in the December 1935 issue of Weird Tales.  The exotic place names, fable-like structure, and occasional regression into 18th Century English diction make Smith’s story appear superficially Dunsanian.  But Smith was much more adept than Lovecraft at incorporating Dunsany’s style into his own creation, and The Chain of Aforgomon contains many elements that are unique to Smith’s fiction.  It is one of his most impressive and memorable stories, in my view.

Because the author excels at fashioning stories that end almost exactly where they begin, it pays to reread the first few pages of this story after right after reaching the end of it.  The reader will then have a greater appreciation for what Smith has done to express his grim vision of reincarnation and the hazards of tampering with time.

The story begins ominously.  The narrator, who is the executer of the late John Milwarp’s estate, describes how the author suffered a bizarre death—a kind of spontaneous human combustion—in his study.  Milwarp has left behind a journal of the hallucinatory adventures he experienced after taking a drug called souvara. His executor publishes the diary entries in a magazine “as part of my endeavor to revive and perpetuate Milwarp’s memory.” 

There is some urgency here.  Despite the ghastliness of Milwarp’s death, even the narrator himself is beginning to forget details about him.  Even the ink with which Milwarp wrote his manuscript is beginning to fade into invisibility.  His last novel has been turned down by publishers despite being of equal quality to his earlier work.  “They say that his vogue has passed.”  It is as if the memory of John Milwarp is being relentlessly erased from the minds of those who knew him.  The narrator begins to wonder if he ever existed.  This perhaps is Smith’s sad comment on the fleetingness of success and renown.

The notion of an individual’s erasure from past, present and future time is reminiscent of a short fable by Lord Dunsany—“The King That Was Not”—found in Time and the Gods.  King Althazar enrages the gods of Pegāna by having statues made of all of them, but with his face on each statue.  “Slay him not,” the gods say, “for it is not enough that Althazar shall die…”  Instead, his punishment is to be forgotten out of existence.  Clark Ashton Smith takes this idea and adds his trademark preoccupation with time travel, necromancy, blasphemy, torture and justice.

Milwarp experiments with souvara only once or twice, but the effects are devastating.  He travels back in time, experiencing various lives in different historical vistas.  Eventually Milwarp goes backward to a time before the creation of the earth, and finds himself in the city of Kalood, on the planet Hestan.  He is now Calaspa, a priest of the time god, Aforgomon.  But contact with this earlier version of himself proves hazardous, because the two personalities, separated by aeons of time, begin to meld together—Milwarp soon begins to experience the dissolution of his identity.

A similar hallucinatory experience can be found in Clark Ashton Smith’s earlier story Ubbo-Sathla (1933).  The motif of reliving past lives also appears in the stories of several of Smith’s contemporaries, for example, H.P Lovecraft’s Polaris (1920) and Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1929). 

In Ubbo-Sathla, Smith’s character reinhabits his life as an ancient wizard who travels back millions of years to examine the primordial entity of the same name, using a mysterious crystal.   In Lovecraft’s story, contemplation of a star produces the vision of a past life in which the character failed to prevent a cataclysmic attack on his beloved city of Olathoë.  He is left guilty and confused over whether the past or the present constitutes his real life.  In The Hounds of Tindalos, Long’s character wants to travel forwards and backwards in time using the ancient Chinese drug called Liao—the reader suspects immediately that this excursion will end badly.

In Clark Ashton Smith’s The Chain of Aforgomon, Milwarp—as Calaspa the priest of the time god—turns his back on his religious training and commits sacrilege by desecrating the altar of his deity.  He invokes the time god’s arch rival Xexanoth, “the Lurking Chaos”, in a ceremony reminiscent of Satanic rituals.  Why?  In order to spend just one more hour with his deceased beloved, Belthoris.  But this blasphemous distortion of time will have implications for his future lives, and those of others as well.

In all of these stories, the implication of reincarnation is not that souls improve through successive reiterations, but that the evils of the past color and bleed through into the lives of people in the present, and draw them backwards in time to the original horror.  As a Calvinist, it is tempting to see in this depiction of reincarnation a recrudescence of original sin, working its way out through successive lives. 

The circular structure of Smith’s story masterfully drives home the karmic insight, which is also relevant to the psychology of a single individual.  John Milwarp’s ultimate question of identity is not ‘Who am I?’, but ‘Who were we?’  The Chain of Aforgomon is strongly recommended reading; it is also interesting to compare Smith’s treatment of reincarnation with those of his contemporaries. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Cleft Skull Tavern—Not Recommended

Few would want to spend the night in an inn called the Cleft Skull Tavern, especially if they knew that one of the rooms contained a skeleton chained to the floor.  When one of the characters asks the innkeeper if he has many guests, he says, “Few come twice.”  Consumers of horror entertainment know that this says a lot about the quality of the customer service, though the average hotel guest may miss this subtle clue.

Wilderness hotels are better regulated these days, though you would never guess this from all the horror movies that take place in such settings.  Choices for lodging were limited deep in the Black Forest around the 17th Century, so Solomon Kane, along with the Frenchman, Gaston l’Armon, decides to give it a try.  Though they have just met along the wooded trail, Kane finds something familiar in l’Armon’s manner and appearance:  “I have seen you somewhere before…”  The landlord gets no points for hospitality; he seems to have an ax to grind, in more ways than one.

This is the set up for Robert E. Howard’s Rattle of Bones (1929), a work that superficially resembles H.P. Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House (1921).    As in the latter work, the main character seeks shelter in the wrong place and at the wrong time.  Lovecraft’s story featured a cannibal who is inspired by pictures he finds in an old text.  The narrator almost becomes his host’s next meal, but is saved by a timely thunderbolt that destroys the house and its owner.  In Howard’s story, the cast of four characters—including the incarcerated skeleton—is halved by the ensuing murder and mayhem.  The notion of naïve guests visiting a hazardous domicile recurs often in horror entertainment, probably going back at least as far as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Hänsel and Gretel, if not further.

In my view the most effective part of the story is Howard’s creation of a dark, candle-lit, nightmarish setting and his clever use of a fairy tale motif.  Rattle of Bones reads like an especially grim Brothers Grimm fable.  

Rattle of Bones is one of the shorter Solomon Kane stories, and precedes by a year The Hills of the Dead, reviewed in a previous post.  (Rattle of Bones was also published in Weird Tales.)  In this story, Kane, the Puritan hero, is uncharacteristically a passive victim of the violence around him.  First, Gaston l’Armon—that would be Gaston the Butcher—holds a pistol to Kane’s neck and attempts to rob him.  But not for long.  Next, the host of the aptly named Cleft Skull Tavern also aims a pistol at Kane, demanding his gold.  It turns out that the proprietor is a homicidal maniac driven mad by years of imprisonment for a crime he never committed.  So there is some pathos here.  “All men are my foes!” he screams, and now appears to be making up for all those earlier years of innocence and upright behavior.

Fortunately for Kane, the mortal remains of the last guest are actually the bones of a vengeful Russian sorcerer.  L’Armon, just before sharing the fate of all previous guests of the Cleft Skull Tavern, broke the skeleton’s chain in a moment of idleness.  This suspiciously random act becomes critical to the plot later on.  As in Lovecraft’s The Picture in the House, the protagonist is saved through no special effort of his own.  Seemingly random events line up to deliver Solomon Kane from an awful fate—all he does is stand around for much of the story and have weapons aimed at him.   If there is any moral at all to the story, it is something like this:  if just about everyone around you is going to get killed, it’s best to be at the back of the line.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

“A Parent Always Worries”

In last night’s episode of SyFy’s Helix, the gruesome carnage of last week was replaced with interminable sibling squabbles among the various characters.  Besides borrowing heavily from a variety of sci-fi and horror sources, Helix draws considerable inspiration from TV soap operas.  There were only two fatalities, a disappointingly low count, though one was fairly spectacular. The show was not as much about the impact of Narvik B, the bioengineered virus destined to alter the future of the human race, or the Ilaria Corporation’s efforts to retrieve it for use in their evil plan for world domination.  It was all about family. 

Tanuk confronts Anana about his sister’s love of the treacherous Major Balleseros, who may still be an Ilarian agent.  Miksa confronts his stepsister Julia about their father’s evident preference for his genetically altered daughter over his adopted son.  Allen, who we learned episodes ago is technically Dr. Hatake’s ex-son in law since he was once married to Hatake’s daughter Julia, confronts Hatake about his hubris in designing a virus that could bring immortality to the human race.  While sneaking around in the air ducts, Peter, now no longer a zombie, confronts his brother Allen for being a know-it-all and never taking him seriously.  Spencer, the Ilarian assassin also known as ‘the Scythe’, confronts Dr. Hatake about decapitating his mother, the hazardous Constance Sutton. 

Where are the zombies when you need them most?  But most of them were either cured or dispatched in the past couple of episodes. On Day 12 only a small remnant of the original research team has survived all this.  They are holed up in “the cabin”, a bunker deep below the Arctic Biosystems laboratory—a place made to look like Julia’s childhood home, which in fact it was.  While the staff grow increasingly anxious and rebellious, Allen, Peter, Julia, Miksa and Dr. Hatake—the “good guys”—play a game of cat and mouse with the Scythe and his two Ilarianettes.  Meanwhile, among the Inuits, Anana, Balleseros and Miksa’s twin brother Tanuk strategize about how to save the villagers from another attack by the Ilarians.
(Playing a twin on this show definitely ensures the longevity of the actor’s contract.)

Along the way, we learn that the Scythe, whose real name is Spencer, is a couple of centuries old, even though he looks like a high school kid.  And Dr. Hatake was born in 1501.  This argues for the earlier hypothesis that there is some extraterrestrial connection with Ilaria and “the 500”.  Given the timeframes involved, the technology needed for bioengineering would not have been available during Spencer’s or Hatake’s life span.  The silvery eyes and miraculous healing powers of those exposed to the beneficial effects of Narvik B are due to incorporation of alien DNA.   

The canisters of Narvik A and Narvik B virus are scrimmaged back and forth between Team Arctic Biosystems and Team Ilaria.   Julia is stolen from the group during a claustrophobic elevator scene, and suffers the brutality of her captor, the Scythe.  This includes the removal of one of her fingers, which is then sent in a letter to the group in the bunker.  Further dismemberment is threatened unless the virus is turned over to the vengeful and sociopathic Scythe.  (Dismemberment and decapitation have been recurring themes in the show.) 

The Scythe achieves his vengeance against Hatake by wiring both Julia and Miksa with explosive collars and having him choose which one will live.  Perhaps this is a metaphor for the difficult choices parents must often make.  Sometimes you just have to let a youngster make his or her own decisions, even if it means their head might explode. There is a touching if messy scene of parent-child reconciliation followed by horrific self sacrifice.  Hatake overpowers the hateful Scythe, knocks him to the floor and deactivates the remaining collar.  For the moment, Team Arctic Biosystems gains the upper hand.    

But wait, what is in that big box the Ilarian’s brought to the base?  Like a gameshow hostess, the remaining Ilarianette twirls some dials, and the mysterious container falls open.  It’s—somebody’s mom!

The season finale is next week, and the coming attractions appropriately ask: “Who will survive?”  For more information, see Helix | Syfy.  Helix is on SyFy Friday nights at 10:00.