It is summer. It is warm and I’m on vacation. This means: swimming pool, gardening, nature, relax, DVDs, masturbating, and reading. In the last concept there are two subsections conditioned to location, hammock reading and deck chair reading, that I’m particularly fond of and that, in time, have joined the ranks of my favorite places to grab a book and get lost in the pages. I assume that the notion in itself is alluring enough for anyone reading this – I dare anyone to refuse a hammock – but as always the idea behind this post (and again you are justifying yourself for the eight billionth time to nobody) is to find out why this is a special place for me.
In my previous post of this anthology I found it helped to write about the place and time that I’m describing when I’m in it rather than from the top of my head, so I figured I’d try the same approach again to see if lighting strikes twice. (Editorial note: No. I did not write my first posts in the toilet)
The hammock hangs between two evergreen trees (quercus ilex). To its left there are hydrangeas that also surround one of the two trees and to its right there is a nice view of the swimming pool, but what particularly endears me to it is the view above. The sky is clear and blue in the few open patches between the boughs and the sun lights the top of the trees with an orange dusky glow (I tend to lay there only in the late afternoon, usually after taking a swim). My eyes swing back and forth between the book and the different birds playing in the branches.
This hammock has been in my house since I was a little kid, but it was only in the summer of 2012 when I was reading Walden or, Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau when I truly fell in love with it, and it owes its position in this anthology to this book. When I combined these two elements I realized how much nature enhances the reading experience. How? First some context.
Around 1850, Henry David Thoreau decided to leave the city and live in the forest close to Walden pond where he aimed to experience life in its simplest and truest form. This book is a recollection of his experiences and thoughts throughout the two years that he spent living in a little cabin in that forest. A fantastic stylist (one of my favorites along with Edgar Allan Poe) and a deep thinker; Thoreau finds an infinite source of inspiration from the broader aspect of nature and the changing of the seasons to the smallest events, insignificant to the unobservant, like the savage war raging at his feet between two different colonies of ants.
I found joy in the simplicity of laying outside with a book, under two big trees with the birds chipping on the branches. It was the perfect combination of book and place: Walden became one of my favourite books (and is one of the main reasons why I started planting tomatoes) and that hammock became one of my favorite reading spots. (Random Trivia:I first read about this book in Roger Ebert’s review of Into the Wild. Better write that down so that you don’t forget future-me)
I love my shitty deck chair. I love it so much because it is so shitty. It is old, dusty, bulky and barely comfortable enough to sit in. Every summer I take it out of a room at the end of the garage, dust it off and place it in the spot with the best view in the whole house, and every time I sit there with a book I am quite simply happy. Life does not get better.
I usually lay there in the morning or late in the afternoon when my legs are a bit numb from the hammock. The morning view is characterized by the miles of pine forest sprawling from the skirts of the mountain to its very top and the cool morning breeze and is usually when I get most of my reading done. However, I think I like it best when the sun sets and the seat is still warm from all the evening heat and Venus shines meekly in the horizon. The time window to read is shorter in the afternoon (one of the cons of fading light) but it is a magical place to end a fine day of reading; in my very own window to the stars.
Much like the hammock there are quite a few books that will be forever linked to that chair. I’ll always remember how inspiring and wonderful it was reading Contact by Carl Sagan , or how I was glued to Stephen King’s On Writing to avoid thinking about a horrible breakup, or how I read the first four robot novels by Isaac Asimov and started thinking about writing my own science-fiction novel. I’m not sure how long this deck chair will last. It is really beaten down and worn and I know that I’m overtly sentimental for something awfully silly, but the memories attached to it are really special to me.
A few months ago I bought Robots and Empire (the fifth novel in Asimov’s robot saga) with the clear idea that I’d only read it in summer. I may be a creature of habits, but when this post is published I’ll be sitting in that shitty deck chair reading it and I’ll be as happy as you can get. I guarantee it!
I bought Dracula in my favorite used book store for two euros a few months ago. It wasn’t on my radar but I was browsing through piles of unclassified paperbacks and when I saw it I remember thinking: “This book created one of the world’s most iconic monsters. For that price I could give it a go”. It was an impulsive buy – primarily because I’m a cheap whore – and, whilst I did have some curiosity, I wasn’t really eager to read it; I figured I’d eventually get to it when the right mood strikes. How dearly I paid for such foolishness!
The worst part is that price tag and iconic status aside, Dracula also ticked the nostalgia factor. One of my earliest Dracula memories is an excerpt from one my school books (taken from the May 4th entry in Jonathan Harker’s journal to be precise) and the line in it that said “It is the Eve of Saint Georges Day. Do you not know that tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, all the evil things in the world will have full sway?” The idea of the most evil night really scared and fascinated me and I’ve always remembered that line.
However, my fondest Dracula memory has to be reading the full run of The Tomb of Dracula by Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman. This comic book series is an absolute master piece in storytelling and one of the best adaptations– if not the best – that Marvel did of the classic monsters. (Editorial note: For this review I’ll skip all references to movies and TV shows with the exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola)
I began Dracula on the 3rd of May, on the exact same day of the first journal entry in the book – even if I didn’t like the novel that’s a pretty cool coincidence –. The book is structured using different journal and diary entries, letters and telegrams from the main characters in the story. I’ve seen this structuring method used very effectively on R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde to gradually give the reader the necessary bits of information to develop the story whilst keeping the momentum going, but unfortunately I did not find this approach as effective in Dracula. The story moves at a snail’s pace and I could have used some trimmings. The main section that I’d edit is Lucy’s slow turn into a vampire because Stoker’s change of POV between characters leads to repetition on the same events from a slightly different perspective and halts the story.
To be absolutely fair I already knew the sequence of events. I may be saying “Get on with it” in 2017 but this story could be nail-biting for the 1897 reader. I’m also aware that Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hide is a shorter book than Dracula but, taking into account that both stories deal with monsters and are from the same time period (Jeckyl is from 1887) I think it is a fair comparison.
There are moments when Stoker’s prose works to create an eerie atmosphere, such as Lucy’s sleepwalking (the first time) and the events that unfold once she turns into a vampire – I couldn’t help thinking about Lovecraft’s The Tomb when I read those passages – or Dr. Seward’s interaction with Renfield (a patient suffering from fits of lunacy and rage caused by Dracula), but unfortunately those felt few and far away. I also enjoyed Stoker’s approach to his own story from a medical perspective: from the previously mentioned character Renfield and psychiatry to Dracula himself and vampirism (one is treated as a physical threat and the other as a disease).
The paperback I bought has a quote from Sarah Waters describing the book as “An exercise in masculine anxiety and nationalist paranoia”. I felt that these two themes were present on the margins of the story and I’d go to the point of editing out the word “masculine”, especially when you have such a strong female character in Mina Harker being equally or even more resolute on destroying Dracula than the rest of the characters despite the events that unfold. I agree with the nationalist paranoia angle if you look at the novel with a 1987 lens that could picture Dracula as the outsider from distant lands threatening the Victorian society, but from a current perspective I did not feel that it was an angle that shaped the story. If I had to describe Dracula I’d say it is “A novel that embodies the fear of disease and loss and the lengths of human determination to fight it” but even I can see some holes in that sentence.
I finished reading Dracula on the 6th of August. Even if I didn’t like it – I didn’t hate it is just that it didn’t grab me – I’m glad I finished it because I feel this is the best book review (most analytical) I’ve written so far.
Bonus Round:I have avoided talking about TV Shows and movies dealing with Dracula because this post would get too big to handle and I wanted to keep my focus on the novel.
That. Being. Said.
Having read the book, I have some issues with Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula as I find the title of the movie completely misleading. One of the main threads of the movie is the romance between Mina and Dracula, which is completely missing from the book! Whilst I appreciate that adapting a novel is always difficult, if you call it Bram Stoker’s Dracula I expect a direct adaptation on the novel without big deviations. The title could have been “Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula” or, if you want to be very specific, “Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker with some major deviations in both plot and characters”. I’m sure a talented marketing department could make it work, right?
P.S: No “I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth in it” jokes. What the hell happened?
When I was little I was fascinated by these three pictures:
The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water
Taur-na-Fúin -Fangorn Forest-
The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water (Left)
Taur-na-Fúin -Fangorn Forest- (Center)
These pictures graced the front cover of the Spanish editions published by Minotauro of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King that were in my school’s library. Every time I went there (more often than most normal eight year olds should) I’d grab one of the books and look at the front pictures mesmerized. This was a time when Peter Jackson’s trilogy did not exist and the only film adaptation was Ralph Baschi’s underrated classic, back when The Lord of the Rings was known primarily to book readers.
The first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was fueled by the fascination with this other world that my brother was obsessed with and my natural curiosity about this “Middle-earth” and all the creatures and adventures in it. (Random Trivia: I remember that I kept an apple nearby when I first read it because I had seen Bastian do the same in The Neverending Story. I was so cute) However in my head, there was also something about these three pictures that imbued these books with a mystic lore – there is also the Middle-earth map which is just enthralling –.
I only found years later that those pictures had been created by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, and thus followed the purchase of J.R.R. Tolkien Artist & Illustrator by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (Random Trivia: purchased in abebooks in very good condition. The copy I bought apparently belonged to the Elsmere Public Library but had never been taken out. Alas! Worry not! Even if you are quote “No longer the property of New Castle County Libraries” your journey across the Atlantic has led you to a nice comfy home).
There are two aspects that I found particularly interesting when I read this book and that I want to keep in mind when I write this review. First is that Tolkien himself doubted the quality of his artwork and second is that I got the impression that Tolkien was at heart both a writer and a painter. With this in mind, let’s look at the highlights of each chapter.
Early Work: the most biographical section of the entire book – necessarily so to understand Tolkien’s first steps in drawing – the artwork presented is usually a backdrop to the period of Tolkien’s life. This chapter has some of the first drawings he made as a child, but is mainly dominated by his paintings of the English country side. My favorite is Ruins at West End of Whitby Abbey. I think it manages to capture the sensation of decay and of the forgotten place eaten away by time. (Random Trivia:I just had a geek-gasm. Those same ruins are also in -my current reading- Dracula!)
Visions, Myths and Legends: I liked that this book wanted to cover all of Tolkien’s work and not just The Lord of The Rings because I wanted to see the full picture (pun intended). This section presents an embryonic Middle-earth. Ideas are forming and Tolkien’s world is expanding but is not yet fully developed.
One of the highlights of this chapter is the -full page- painting chosen for the front cover of this book which depicts a landscape of the Silmarillion and is titled The Halls of Manwë on the Mountains of the World above Faerie. I also learned that Taur-na-Fúin originally depicted a moment of The Silmarillion and that it was later redrawn in ink for The Hobbit and retitled Mirkwood (image below), and that the original also had its name changed to Fangorn Forest.
Art for Children: this is the one section in the entire book where I paid far more attention to the words rather than the pictures.
J.R.R Tolkien has to be one of the coolest dad’s that have ever lived. He began telling stories to his children about Father Christmas and his adventures in the North Pole, and later on Father Christmas began sending drawings and letters (written and drawn by Tolkien) to his children with illustrations of the events he narrated. The children also received pictures from North Polar Bear a friend of Father Christmas with his very own lettering style. How cool is that?
This particular chapter was heartwarming and sweet and the book is worth it just for it.
The Hobbit: I found this chapter very interesting because it shows the steady hand of Tolkien the writer clashing with the dubious hand of Tolkien the painter. Tolkien prepared a lot of illustrations for The Hobbit with the intention of including them in the book, but he doubted their quality and was uncertain if they were up to standards of the text. These doubts grew after it was released and the book’s pictures received criticism from reviewers.
I do not understand the criticism.
The composition, style, look and relation with the story is very smart and crafty. In a painting like Rivendell there is a gateway into the picture. We follow the river and with it the eye observes the rest of the picture. The Gate to the Elven Kingdom shows the road our heroes are walking and manages to put us there with them. The Trolls I liked even more because we are a partner in crime, we are also spying on the three trolls like the dwarf at the bottom is doing.
Tolkien’s drawing fit perfectly with the story and I’m saddened that they received bad criticism.
The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien did not consider that he was up to the task of creating the illustrations for The Lord of The Rings (outside of material like The Gate of Moria or the Runes in Balin’s tomb). Whether it was the criticism received on The Hobbit, the weight of writing or simply his own doubts about his skills, I think that this ultimately benefited the final product.
I like the drawings in The Hobbit because they fit tonally with a children’s book – and make no mistake, no matter what Peter Jackson aimed at, The Hobbit is a children’s book –, but The Lord of the Rings works best with the epic style of Alan Lee. This chapter was surprisingly short in content and I did not find it that interesting outside of the covers Tolkien designed for each book.
Patterns and Devices: I liked the sample images of the mail envelope or the newspaper where Tolkien doodled and drew some of his first attempts at patterns, but unfortunately this chapter suffered a bit of The Silmarillion syndrome. There are lots of names being mentioned left and right in regards to devices and small amulets. This chapter did not make for a very interesting reading (perhaps the more hardcore Tolkien reader disagrees with me).
This book is fantastic and definitely worth buying. I haven’t covered nearly 10% of the drawings included in it, and it is amazing seeing how productive Tolkien was both as a writer and as a painter. The only negative aspect is that sometimes the text would refer to a picture either on the next page or on the previous page and it is rather tedious flipping constantly between pages to observe all the details being explained (this is a minor criticism).
I’m trying to figure out if, through this book and this post, I’ve managed to identify why I was so drawn (pun intended) to those three pictures. The book helped me notice that in The Hill Hobbiton-across-the Water there is a small bridge at the bottom of the picture that seems to invite you to follow this long road to a faraway place, and -to a degree- the following pictures managed to perpetuate that fascination: What is hidden in that forest? Where is that tower? What is in it? What surrounds it?
Unfortunately, this does not provide a satisfying reason to explain my childhood fascination.
Note for future-me: your original ending to this post was much more “Well! I guess I’ll never know” but after sitting on it for a bit the following realization happened.
This drawing by Josef Madlener is called “Der Berggeist” (“the mountain spirit”) and it is not featured in the book. What the books says is that Tolkien wrote on the back of a postcard that had this picture “The origin of Gandalf”.
This left me wondering.
How did Tolkien’s mind work so that this little picture on a postcard later became the iconic character? Did he just see the picture and said “Oh, I know! Gandalf!”? What inspired him? Was it the cloak? Was it the mountains beyond where this old man lives? Was it the water in that brook?
The truth is nobody will ever know how Tolkien came up with Gandalf other than Tolkien, but if this is indeed his origin, there is something comforting in knowing that the same person who painted those three drawings -that I began the post with-, once looked at a picture in a postcard and that, somehow, triggered his imagination. After all, if Tolkien came up with Gandalf by looking at a postcard I think my eight year old version is allowed to imagine magical worlds looking at book covers.
I finished reading this book on the 24th of July 2017.
Random Trivia: I also learned that Tolkien liked Van Eyck and, having had the privilege of seeing the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, this was just one of those little bits of information that just managed to put a smile on my face.
Editorial Bonus (Original ending): Unfortunately, my childhood curiosity remains a mystery (although a smaller one). I will have to simply accept the fact that Tolkien managed to put a spell on me through these pictures.
Diane. Age 4: Childhood memory. I hear the first notes of the music intro of a TV show. It is a calm and soothing melody. I see there is a bird on-screen. I remember that it is on channel five (back when there was only five channels). I was not allowed to watch it. My parents told me that it was time for bed. I did go to bed, but that melody was haunting.
At age twenty-two I was discovering the joys of reading and literature, Diane. It was a time of disconnection with my studies, my friends and to a degree my family – with the exception of my brother –. I was contemplating the idea of going to some sort of film school, following the footsteps of writer-director Kevin Smith. I looked up to him for his charisma, his ability to express his thoughts, the message in his movies – particularly Chasing Amy –, and his lectures at different colleges throughout the USA filmed for the “Evening With Kevin Smith” DVD. I watched all his movies religiously with all the extras. I favoured the Clerks X Making Of a bit more than the others. It was, and is, inspiring to see how a kid from Jersey made his dream come true and whenever I doubted about going to film school I used that for fuel. Of course, we both know that eventually that wasn’t enough to fill the tank. In this Making Of, Smith mentions that his first idea for Clerks was very much in the vein of Twin Peaks with the store receiving visits from strange characters.
Taking everything the man said as holy writ and my childhood memory, I downloaded and watched Twin Peaks. That was my first taste of David Lynch, Diane.
That same year I also joined a film history class in college which required a year-end project analysis about a movie. In the list of films available there was “Blue Velvet” also by David Lynch. I remember I did the project with a girl I used to have a crush on and a new friend of hers that, I felt, had substituted me. He did not want to include in the analysis of the film the iconic scene featuring Dean Stockwell’s character, Ben, singing “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. What a douche, Diane.
That was my second taste of David Lynch. (Random Trivia: watch until the end for a line that made its way to Clerks)
That year I also wrote my first short story. Remind me to send it over to you once I get back Diane. I think it is fairly decent material for a first stab. It was for a college competition titled “Tell us a remarkable experience at college”. I am of course paraphrasing but that was the main idea behind what the text should be. I’ve told you many times that I hated everything about college, but still, I felt I could somewhat connect the competition with the story about a girl I had recently broken up with, and it seemed like a good excuse to write about it – as a purge of sorts –. In that short story I stole borrowed Agent Cooper’s joke from episode one of Twin Peaks about the JFK murder, and yes, you heard me right, I did throw in a Kennedy assassination joke on a story about meeting this girl. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking Diane.
Years later I watched The Elephant Man, Mullholand Drive and I tried to watch Inland Empire, but it was too weird for my taste. My interest on David Lynch waned until a few months ago Diane.
When I was twenty-nine Blink 182 released California. The newest album in five years and also the first one featuring Matt Skiba, taking the role of guitarist and vocalist, after the departure of founding member Tom DeLonge who had decided to focus his side project “Angels & Airwaves” and a career in ufology.
I learned that Matt Skiba played in a group called Alkaline Trio and that one of his favourite books was “Catching The Big Fish” by David Lynch, and allow me to quote directly Diane as I hate getting my facts wrong: “That’s the book that got me into transcendental meditation. Before, I always thought meditation was some hippy-cult thing, but David Lynch is one of me heroes and he’s been meditating for over 30 years“. This is the first time that this book appeared on my radar.
The 9th of March 2017 is my brother’s girlfriend birthday. I gave her as a present the Joss Whedon film “Much Ado About Nothing” and, for some odd reason unknown to me still to this day, she also decided to give me “Catching the Big Fish”. They should put a picture of her next to the definition of “cool” on the dictionary.
14th of June. I’m six episodes into the new Twin Peaks season. Lynch once again shows that nobody does television like him. I’m fifty pages into Dracula and I’m just not getting into it. I’ve tried and failed to read one page a day for the past few months of “Catching the Big Fish” with the hope that each thought and observation would sink in better. The night it is really hot. There is a heat wave and I can’t sleep. I finished the book and write to the my brother’s girlfriend whom I’d address from now onwards as the “Log Lady”. I tell the Log Lady that I loved the book and I arrange for my brother (from now on “Bob”) to give The Log Lady the Blu-Ray of the documentary David Lynch – The Art Life as a surprise. That’ll teach her a lesson to go around giving me presents without any reason whatsoever.
*End of tape*
SIDE B – Things to Come
David Lynch is a writer, a director, a painter, an actor, a musician – perhaps a mad sound engineer would be a better term –, but I think the best way to defines him is as an artist, or more specifically a very talented artist. Whether you like or dislike his output it is unquestionable that his work creates a reaction that can range from complete and total what-the-fuckness (I believe that is technical term) to awe and admiration. I tend to swing between these two as I consider myself a fan of his, but I’d be lying if I said that all his work appealed to me – I still can’t figure out Inland Empire or Mullholand Drive – .
Watching the new season of Twin Peaks I was reminded of just how exciting, refreshing, different and personal his work is. When Twin Peaks aired in the nineties there was nothing like it on TV and twenty-five years later these men (let’s not forget Mark Frost, the often unsung hero) have done it again. There is nothing like the new season of Twin Peaks on TV.
I’ve seen people go out of their way to analyze the writing, the visuals, the symbology and meaning of each scene of this new season– to be fair this dissection has been inflicted on all of Lynch’s work –, but I feel that this exercise of rationalization is ultimately futile and will only lead to a simplification of the work or to flat-out speculation – with the proverbial mix of frustration too –. As a viewer my recommendation is that you (Yes. I’m talking to you Internet) try to experience his art and forget about conventional narrative structures and intellectual reasons behind images and instead focus on the sensations, ideas and feelings they generate.
Having read “Catching the Big Fish” I’ve understood that David Lynch’s work does not always come from rationality, but rather inspiration – one day he put his hands on a warm car and suddenly he came up with the idea of the red room–,meditation or even dreams. In those instances plot is going to take a back seat to explore those ideas, and based on my own dreams I know the difficulty in finding any form of logic in them. This does not mean that the end product should not be subject to interpretation or criticism, I just think that it is important to take the right approach. A large part of the negative comments that David Lynch receives is that he doesn’t make sense and that his plots are all over the place, but that is like looking at a painting and saying that it needs more words or that the book needs more special effects. That is not the focus.
The book also deals with meditation. Unfortunately I’m in no place to talk about this subject for sheer lack of knowledge outside of what I just read, but I’d recommend this book to those also unfamiliar as it provides a nice introduction to the concept and ideas behind meditation. I also can’t verify whether Lynch found this through meditation or if it was just life experience, but I want to share a quote from the last page of the book: True happiness is not “out there”. True happiness lies within. I consider myself a man of many words and I hate reducing things to simple sentences but I think this statement nails it on the head (and there are a few of these in the book).
To end, I’d like to dedicate this post to the person that gave me this book (apparently she was none-too-thrilled with my previous dedication. I can’t really understand why). Not only is she responsible for the awesome main picture, but she is also one of the few people that encourages me to write… plus she is like this weird hybrid of a really cute bunny and a human. This post is for you, you adorable cuteness freak!
I had this book on my bedside table for a few months but I read it in one sitting on the 14th of June, because I just didn’t feel like reading Dracula –I’ll get there in a few posts–. I’ve been really busy with work hence the lack of posts but I’m having some time off soon. I can’t wait to sit down and read and/or write.
Random Trivia: this post’s structure was inspired by “The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper”. If you are a fan of Twin Peaks and you haven’t heard these, give yourself a treat! They are priceless.
I want to echo a phrase from one of my previous posts to begin this one: I was just thinking that this is just a great example of how video games can actually help to develop curiosity and how they can introduce kids to literature. Now, the game I discussed in that post was complicated and not suitable for a child (I was around ten when I played it) because of that complexity -heck, it is extremely difficult even now-, this next game I want to talk about was not “suitable” because it was disturbing. Thankfully, I had an awesome older brother who played it quite a bit so that whole concept of “suitability” was not really present, and thus I discovered I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Don’t know anything about it? Allow me to show you the introduction of the game before I go any further.
Originally released by Cryogenics, I must have been around ten when I first discovered this game -thanks to our 486 Intel computer-. The images creeped the hell out of me, but I remained glued to the screen and watched consistently as my brother tried and tried, over and over again to beat it. I don’t think he ever finished it -and if he did, I doubt he got the good ending- but, like with other games, after a while he got tired of it and moved on to something else. A lot of time has passed since the late nineties, but I still remember this game and, because I have it installed in an old computer, I decided to replay a couple of weeks ago after feeling a rush of nostalgia and boredom to see if it still holds up.
Ten-year-old-me may have been disturbed by the images but thirty-year-old-me is amazed. The characters, themes, story arcs and settings, everything about this game exudes quality. To explain why, I need to bring into the mix the short story that this game is based on and the man who wrote it, Harlan Ellison.
Harlan Ellison is an american writer with more than 1.800 short stories under his belt (and counting) and work on screenplays, teleplays and comic books. He has been involved with iconic shows such as the original run of The Outer Limits and Star Trek, and he was indirectly responsible for the inception of The Terminator, a movie that shamelessly ripped off one -some would say two- of his Outer Limits episodes without acknowledging where it took inspiration from. He was won both Hugo and Nebula awards -the Oscars of science-fiction-, and one of those Hugo’s was precisely for the short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.
First published in 1967, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a supercomputer created to handle the complexities of the Cold War – that later escalated to World War Three – becomes sentient and, after killing nearly all the human race, leaves only four men and a woman to torture for all eternity (the story is set in the hundred and ninth year of torture). The computer, as explained in the short story, is named AM “At first it meant Allied Mastercomputer, and then it meant Adaptive Manipulator, and later on it developed sentience and linked itself up and they called it an Aggressive Menace, but by then it was too late, and finally it called itself AM, emerging intelligence, and what it meant was I am cogito ergo sum I think, therefore I am” and the reason for the eternal torture of these five individuals is brilliant, and again allow me to quote from the short story “We had given AM sentience. Inadvertently, of course, but sentience nonetheless. But it had been trapped. AM wasn’t God, he was a machine. We had created him to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity. In rage, in frenzy, the machine had killed the human race, almost all of us, and still it was trapped. AM could not wander, AM could not wonder, AM could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge.And in his paranoia, he had decided to reprieve five of us, for a personal, everlasting punishment that would never serve to diminish his hatred that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man. Immortal, trapped, subject to any torment he could devise for us from the limitless miracles at his command.”
The reason why I’m quoting so much from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is because this game works really well as a companion piece to the short story (there is even a clever easter egg where one of the characters, Benny, talks about the scenario described in it), and I think that it benefits from a side-by-side comparison. After all, there was just so much ground that could be covered in less than fifteen pages, and the personalities of the five characters required some fleshing out in order to give them the necessary backgrounds and story arcs for the game. To solve this issue, David Sears, the writer that worked with Harlan Ellison to shape the game’s script (there are more details about the creation of the game in this great article from gameinformer.com), asked him two questions: “Why were these people saved? Why did AM decide to save them?” and used those answers to start developing the characters:
Gorrister’s story: A man wakes up inside a zeppelin flying without a crew. His heart is literally missing from his chest. That alone has to pique your interest. In the original text Gorrister is just there and doesn’t do much, but in the game he has one of the strongest character arcs. All the stories are veiled with the notion of regret (and if you have a sadistic sentient machine that can replicate events of your past the possibilities of endless torture dealing with regret are infinite), but he also deals on a personal level with the idea of mental illness -he put his own wife in a mental house-, and the writing and visual metaphors work really well to illustrate that: giving his own heart to be eaten by a jackal, getting his wife off the hook -literally-, burying the past… I can see why David Sears felt this is one of the strongest characters.
Benny’s story: In my humble opinion the weakest story . Benny has suffered the most at the hands of AM. In the original text he was a “college professor, handsome and gay” tortured and mutilated to look like a man-ape. In the game he is still a man-ape, but his background is that of a man (married to a woman) with a military background that has to deal with the notion of selfishness and self-interest, and the reason why I didn’t like it is because the character’s dilemma seems awfully generic. If you have someone who has been mutilated why not explore that aspect in more detail? In a game that deals with the Holocaust and rape -more of that later- this just seems safe and bland. The fact that they omit any gay angle is very interesting and telling of what may have been acceptable in a video game in the nineties; and it really stood out for me because Harlan Ellison does not shy away from this sort of topics. His famous science fiction anthology “Dangerous Times”, published in the sixties dealt openly with sexuality and homosexuality in some of its stories, so it just seems off to erase this aspect for the game.
Ellen’s story: Her story deals with the idea of abuse, blocked memories and feeling powerless but unfortunately the execution is a bit poor. It starts great with her character appearing in front of a pyramid made of junk and her phobia of the colour yellow, but as the story unfolds and you find out that the cause of her fear is due to the fact that she was raped by a man wearing a yellow suit the story begins to crumble.
Speaking exclusively from a storytelling perspective, pulling off rape is extremely difficult because it will most likely read like you either don’t know what you are talking about, or that you are putting it for shock value. In the short story Ellen frequently has sex with the men of the group, and Ted (one of the two remaining characters) mentions how the “innocent” Ellen seems to particularly enjoy having sex with Benny because AM has given him “an organ fit for a horse” -this is mentioned in a fit of rage so it is up to the reader to determine if this is true or false-, but much like Benny’s stories I wished they had explored the character from the angle presented in the short story rather than what they went for. Random Question: Am I the only one that found her character’s attitude extremely sassy? I think somebody forgot to explain the voice actress her character’s background.
Nimdok’s story: This story also deals with the idea of regret, but whereas Gorrister’s story ends with him finding peace for what he did, Nimdok’s story is about facing the consequences. Set in the background of the Jewish Holocaust, Nimdok is a doctor that sold out his own people in the name of science. He operated and tortured men, women and children and this story deals directly with that.
I read that this character’s section was banned in France and Germany upon release due to how disturbing it was, and to be fair the game does not shy away from the horrific scenario: tortured children, prisoners caught on barbed wired, an eyeless man, a wall of howling dead faces. Nimdok’s story is one of the bests in the game along with Gorrister’s.
AM enjoys torturing people -and is in fact doing so with Nimdok- so the idea of the machine finding this human a “kindred spirit” works really well and creates a very twisted scenario with Nimdok’s being tortured by his own time torturing others. The fact that his character’s background in the short story goes as far as “Nimdock (which was the name the machine had forced him to use, because AM amused itself with strange sounds)” could be a reason why he and Gorrister came out strongest in the game.
Ted’s story: Ted is the tiebreaker and the last one in this list for a very specific reason. Ted is the narrator of the short story and should have, in theory, the strongest arc, because we get a bit more background and personality from him -turns out he is a bit crazy after all those years of torture-. I’ve mentioned before, that I had an issue with Ellen and Benny’s approach because they did not explore the angle of the short story, but video game Ted completely deviates from the short story and it works really well. He fears how the others may see him due to his lies, a subject matter less heavy than Ellen’s, but interesting enough so that it is not as generic as Benny’s, but what truly elevates Ted’s story is how they managed to fit and work in his narrative ideas from famous books such as Cervante’s Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Plato’s Symposium, Dante’s Divine Comedy and T.H White’s Sword in the Stone. This story borrow’s elements from all these works and uses them on characters, settings, themes and conversations, and it is a joy seeing how cleverly they’ve interwoven all of them.
Throughout the stories there are references to other literary works such as 1984, Macbeth and the stories of Sherlock Holmes. These are sprinkled, again very cleverly, in the “Psych profile” the equivalent of a hint section, but it is in the game’s climax where we get one final reference to the works of Freud by showing AM’s mind split into the Id, the Ego and the Superego; and only if you’ve finished each character’s story correctly you’ll be able to get the “good” ending.
The genius of this game resides on the creators trusting the player to either know, learn or interpret all these ideas and references. However, going back to the beginning of the post, I can’t ignore the fact that my fascination did not begin because of these ideas and references. It is clear that had my parents known more about this game they would’ve certainly stopped me from watching my brother play it, and yet I do feel that some context is needed after writing all this, because one could reach the very erroneous conclusion that I shouldn’t have been exposed to it at that age.
The thing is, when I was ten all the adult themes and ideas completely went over my head, and all that stuck were the images and, even though I admit they were disturbing, they were not as bad or traumatizing as say, Mufasa’s death in The Lion King -that is still difficult to watch-. Perhaps they were more explicit and graphic, but without context they were just images and I’m very glad that I was exposed to them because, as disturbing as they were, this is yet another example of how a child’s curiosity evolves, twenty years later, into the rediscovery of a great game with very ambitious ideas, complex themes, lots of book references, and most importantly I’ve learned about another writer that I’ll be looking into in more detail. So here you go parents: extremely disturbing video games can lead to literature! (Mental note: make sure you copyright this for future bumper stickers)
What better way to finish this post than with the short story narrated by none other than his creator? Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Thought it would be a one-off, didn’t you? You’d just write that silly post about the toilet and then forget all about it. Face it. These type of posts are way more difficult than your usual book reviews, aren’t they? These posts are somewhat personal. Well! I’m giving it another shot! Here is part deux of my anthology aptly titled “Places where I enjoy reading”. To kickoff this entry let’s begin with the following description:
It is winter and there is a house by the mountain side. The house is empty and the summer days when it was filled with people are long gone. Now it is only visited during the weekends if rain or cold allow it. In that house there is a fireplace. It is surrounded by a rocking chair, a two-seat couch, an armchair and a table with four radios, two of which do not work. On the ground there is a woven basket filled with old logs of pine and evergreen trees at the bottom and thinner branches on top that are used to feed the fire once the kindling takes a spark.
The fire starts. Smoke appears. Wood begins crackling. The room is still unbearably cold when one moves away from the hearth. A blanket and a cup of tea help to ward off the cold.
(Editorial note: you actually stopped and made a cup of earl grey tea after you wrote this. I sincerely hope that you are not as much a procrastinator as I am future-me)
One of the four radios is on. It is an old SANYO, 2 Band receiver RP 6160 A, and it is currently set to FM. The National Classical Music Station is somewhere around the 100 Mhz mark as indicated by an orange bar that is operated by a small wheel on the side of the radio.
My grandmother used to listened to it every night.
The thinner branches are already in the fireplace and I’ve placed a big log on top that I hope lasts the rest of the night. I sit back. The announcer on the radio let’s me know that the piece of music that I’ve been listening to for the past few minutes is Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.
My eyes begin to close. Will there be embers in the morning hidden in the ash?
Outside of an exercise in describing one of my favorite places to sit down and read, I hope I’ve achieved an additional thing that explains why I love reading by the fireplace: it’s all about the mood.
Unlike the worryingly specific criteria that I have for a toilet book, the following are just a small -but excellent- selection of books to help me illustrate this “mood” theory and that go extremely well with a dark cold room, a small reading light and a roaring fire.
H.P. Lovecraft – Necronomicon & Eldritch Tales
These are the only two books that I’ve read exclusively by the fireplace. They are both compilations of H.P. Lovecraft’s work and, whilst they do not contain all of his work, the beautiful illustrations and the care that has gone into this editions is still palpable (Unfortunately, I still found some typos).
Lovecraft’s gothic prose is far more effective if you are sitting next to a fire on a cold winter night. The horror and nightmarish landscapes of his stories soon became a bit more ominous and outside, where the sky is dark and the wind is howling, those terrors appear to be growing and lurking. If you are new to Lovecraft and you want to test if what I say is true, I suggest you get your hands on (or click on) any of the following: The Colour From Out of Space, The Music of Erich Zann, Dagon or The Tomb; and if you are thinking about purchasing one of these two books I suggest you go for the Necronomicon first (both are great, but his best stories are in there), either way stay close to the fire. I assure you that it is the only thing that will keep you sane.
Random Trivia: and if you really want to OD on mood put on some Electric Wizard inspired by Lovecraft. WARNING: the following song is B-A-D-A-S-S.
The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe
How could I not include Poe in this list? You can’t talk about horror in books without mentioning Edgar Allan Poe! He was the first one to shape the genre. Without him there is nothing: no Stephen King, no Lovecraft, no Neil Gaiman, no Alan Moore. Nothing.
Additionally, Edgar Allan Poe deserves special mention because he is a fantastic wordsmith -one of the bests in my humble opinion-. Almost everything he has written reads beautifully and, even if you don’t enjoy horror but love words, you might appreciate how he weaves each sentence with seamless perfection.
His stories are capable of creating a very real, palpable and confusing horror (The Pit and the Pendulum), a schizophrenic madness (The Tell-Tale Heart) or a doomed melancholic atmosphere (The Fall of the House of Usher), and if none of that is for you I still invite you to check out the brilliant adaptation that The Simpsons did of his most famous poem, The Raven. It is narrated by James Earl Jones and has a huge fireplace! How can you possibly resist?
J.R.R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
It is one of the few books that I’ve gone back to on several occasions and to be fair I do not need to have a fire to enjoy it, but the last time I read it I noticed that I was only feeling like delving into Middle-earth during the coldest months of the year, and the moment that there was no fire my desire to resume the quest to destroy the one ring vanished. It took me all the weekends of two winters and two autumns to finish it back in 2010 and 2011.(Editorial note: I’ve got to check the date when I finished reading it. I bet now that it must have been winter. Second editorial note: It was the 29th of December of 2011. Well done me!)
I remember that during those two years I avoided the Peter Jackson movies because I wanted to detach the film’s visuals from the words of Tolkien and see if I could imagine Middle-earth just like I did when I was a kid. I’m happy to report that I was succesful in my attempt and that it was all thanks to the fireplace, the tea, the blanket and the book itself. All these elements managed to create the feeling that I was in my little hobbit hole where I could ponder and dream about these far away adventures.
So what is it about these four books and why are their stories enhanced by the companionship of a good fireplace? Well, as I mentioned throughout the post there is a question of mood and atmosphere, but the truth is that the particular fireplace that I’m talking about is located in a place that also helps me shut out the world and let my imagination soar. In this place the hearth becomes a vortex to another world where magic, fantasy, horrors and all that is unreal becomes a little bit more tangible; acting as a bridge between my imagination and my reality. The authors of these books are capable of conjuring entire worlds and their stories can transport you to amazing places, so it makes perfect sense that all the magic locked in those tales reacts well to the fire because, like Calvin said at the beginning, there is something magical about having a fire.
Last editorial note (I swear): the first drafts of this post were a real bitch very complicated and frustrating to write. It took me quite a shitload few attempts to go from completely abstract thoughts on a preference that only made sense to me and that did not necessarily seem logical to a somewhat coherent post. I’m quite proud of it.
P.S: Beginning-of-the-post-me is so depressing. He needs to relax!
P.S.S: A P.S does not count as another editorial note. So suck it!
*grabs a fictional pipe, lights it up and looks moodily towards the horizon*
It really is an odd story how I got to this book. It all begun with Mad Men. It was the end of season four of one of my favorite TV shows. Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men) and his team were producing one great episode after the other and, like all great shows, the writing was always elevated by the excellent performance of the cast and the main character Don Draper, expertly played by Jon Hamm. It was this acting masterclass that led me to his IMDB page to learn more about his work. Mind you, it is important to point out that between seasons four and five of Mad Men there was a two-year gap when the show was halted, and that it was during those years that IMDB kindly informed me of a new TV show that Jon Hamm was doing in the UK with Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter kid). Finding nothing of interest in his filmography and curious to see if Don Draper was the only character that he could play, I stayed alert for the first season’s release of A Young Doctor’s Notebook in Christmas 2012.
The premise of the show is as follows: a young doctor fresh out of the Imperial Moscow University of Medicine & Dentistry receives his first assignment in a small one-doctor hospital found in the middle of nowhere, otherwise known as rural Russia in the nineteen tens. It ran for two seasons, the first one taking all of the materials from the book of the same name and adapting it in very creative ways – more of that later – and the second one continuing the story arch set in season one but taking inspiration on other Bulgakov works– the white guard is featured in season two quite heavily so it is not too much of a stretch assuming that some elements may be taken from the novel The White Guard –. Once season two finished there was a small Making of episode where Daniel Radcliffe mentioned that one of the reasons he agreed to do the show is because one of his favorite books is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and that he had become obsessed with it since he first read it. This led me to learn about the book’s cult-classic status and the premise -the devil’s visit to 1930’s Moscow and the mischief he causes on the Russian elite- intrigued me. So, I bought The Master and Margarita instead of A Young Doctor’s Notebook.
But wait a second! If you loved the show so much, why on earth didn’t you buy the book? Well… *puffs again on the fictional pipe* Pay attention because here is where the story gets really stupid juicy:
There is one additional factor I skipped. I wanted to read A Young Doctor’s Notebook and not The Master and Margarita, but apparently they only released the book with that title to make use of the shows popularity (this unfortunately backfired because it came and went and nobody mentioned a word about it). So much to my surprise, when I went to purchase a book that was decades old I found it priced like a brand new release and, because I am indeed a very cheap man and back then I did not spend so much time looking into the details of books, I ultimately decided for the more affordable and cultish The Master and Margarita. The real stupid funny part is that a few months ago I remembered reading that the book had been retitled to use the show’s popularity and that previously it was simply named A Country Doctor’s Notebook. So, guess what happened when I searched abebooks under that name? Prices lower than three pounds! (Oh, sweet cheapness how I embrace thee)
But hold up! The real stupidity punchline is that Bulgakov originally wanted to release it as The Notes of a Young Doctor, thus making the two titles chosen for the English translations quite poor and, to add another yet another twist in this already-too-long story, I found out thanks to a dear friend of mine that the Spanish release is titled Morphine after one of the stories in the book. I wonder if there is a worldwide conspiracy to avoid naming the book like Bulgakov wanted? It seems like it.
Now that I’ve mesmerized you with the absurdly long way to explain how I came to get my hands on the book best purchasing story ever, let’s get to the novel.
The book is divided in chapters each one narrating the events of the young doctor: from his arrival to the hospital and his very first amputation on a little girl who damaged her legs with a brake used to process flax (I actually found the ending of the chapter rather sweet despite the horrible scenario) to a visit in the midst of a blizzard to a woman with a fractured skull or the use of a steel windpipe on a little girl’s closed throat. All these events are based on Bulgakov’s own experience as a young doctor -a position that he eventually left to dedicate himself to journalism and, after finding success, a fulltime writer and playwright- and it is very interesting to see how he analyzes and reflects on past experiences.
I have to give a special mention to Michael Glenny’s excellent translation of the original Russian text. I didn’t feel anything unusual about the flow of the text and, whilst I don’t speak Russian, I didn’t notice anything estrange about the expressions or dialogue of the characters which are usual telltale signs of a poor translation. He also provides a very good introduction to Bulgakov, his experience as a doctor and the nature of the stories (I didn’t know they were serialized upon publication in two monthly magazines).
Has my opinion changed on the TV show having read the book?
Yes. For the better.
The TV show is oddly faithful to the book all throughout season one and it is very clear that the writers did their job to make sure that they stayed true to Bulgakov’s story. However there are a few deviations worth noticing:
– The show is told from the perspective of an older doctor reading the journal he began writing when he first arrived to the rural setting where the story unfolds. The older doctor begins interacting with the younger doctor as events unfold which is a very smart way to turn the observations taking place in the book to a dialogue exchange between characters.
– There is also very twisted humor. The event of the amputation I previously mentioned is played rather comically on the show and the same approach is taken with the steel wind pipe story. Both stay true to the book despite the fact that it is not written as if it is meant to be funny. It is almost as if someone with a very weird humor read the book and decided that the events narrated must have been hilarious. To be fair Bulgakov does poke fun at himself in the novel but it is done subtlety whereas the TV show is very at ease with dark humor.
– The biggest deviation in the TV show is caused by the adaptation of the chapter titled Morphine. In the book, Morphine is a transcript of the notes taken by the replacement of the young doctor in his previous practice. His replacement begins to fill sick and makes the mistake of using morphine, thus becoming an addict. He then proceeds to keep a log of his addiction and, in an ultimate act of despair, shoots himself the day after sending a letter begging for help. The TV show makes this the main driver of the narrative. The old doctor is being investigated for the forgery of prescriptions to maintain his supply of morphine and it is through the investigation that the story unravels. It is his reflection upon the events that first got him hooked on morphine all those years ago that eventually leads to his incarceration in the present(an event that was created exclusively for the show). I think merging this story with the others works very well to move the plot forward, but I can understand purist disliking this change. Thankfully, I’m not a purist so I’m OK with it.
I don’t recall any events of season two being taken from the book except maybe a very loose adaptation of the story “The Murderer” in one of the subplots. To be fair, the title at the beginning of each episode was changed to “A Young Doctor’s Notebook & Other Stories” in season two and I was just happy to get more episodes; and -as previously mentioned- since some of the other subplots may be taken from the first Bulgakov novel, The White Guard, I think it may be worth keeping that book in mind if I ever want to read more from Mikhail Bulgakov.
I finished reading A Country Doctor’s Notebook on the 1st of May 2017.
Additional notes of interest:
About the book: The new edition released with the title of the TV show A Young Doctor’s Notebook does not include the story “The Murderer” which you can find in the version titled A Country Doctor’s Notebook. So, Michael Glenny’s introduction aside, not only you’ll be getting the book cheaper but also you will get one additional short story. If you’ve missed the footnote below the bookcover this new story is in the edition published by Harvill Press. (Random Trivia: and because I have too much free time I’ve corrected the Wikipedia English entry which did not include this piece of information.)
About the show’s DVD: I’ve only found both seasons being sold together in the Spanish version of amazon (direct link). Fear not, it has the English language option.