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Justin Howe

Vampire City by Paul Féval

“There is a little-known place which is undoubtedly the strangest in the world. The people who inhabit the barbarous lands around Belgrade sometimes call it Selene, sometimes Vampire City, but the vampires refer to it among themselves by the names of the Sepulcher and the College.”

Paul Féval’s Vampire City is one of those terrible books that unfolds like a train wreck, but you can’t put it down because it’s extremely entertaining and more than a little bit insane. When Féval pulls the lid off his id he concocts some of the most wild and vividly imagined pieces of “weird” pulp fiction you’re likely to encounter.

The plot has Ann Radcliffe (yes, that one) trying to save her friend Cornelia from the attentions of the vampire Otto Goetzi. Assisted by her manservant Grey Jack, her friend Ned (Cornelia’s fiance), his manservant Merry Bones (an Irish “nailhead”), and a captured transgender vampire named Polly (who is chained to an iron coffin she carries on her shoulder), Ann sets off for Selene, the Vampire City, like a proto-Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Mushishi “the Bugmaster” and the Cryptozoology of the Mind

Last week saw the English language DVD release of Bugmaster, Katsuhiro Otomo’s live-action adaptation of Yuki Urushibara’s supernatural manga series, Mushishi. The film is clumsy but fascinating. Otomo, who should be no stranger to anime and manga fans, does an admirable job of making the fantastic real and placing it squarely into the lives of the film’s characters.

[Creatures of the night brought to light!]

Tomorrow’s Future Today

Back in May, the London Architectural Association hosted a symposium called Thrilling Wonder Stories: Speculative Futures for an Alternate Present, an all day event that sought to bridge the gap between the worlds of science fiction and architectural design. Participants included authors (Warren Ellis, Ian MacLeod), architects (Sir Peter Cook – Archigram, Stephanie Lavaux – R & Sie), and video game designers (Viktor Antonov – art director of Half-Life 2).

Fortunately for those of us who missed it, the whole event has been uploaded to the web, and we can watch it at our own convenience (see below for the link). For better or worse, the future is where all of us are going to end up living, and it’d be nice to know how some people are preparing for it.

[John Galt is that you?]

The Remarkable and True Account of Life on the Moon

In the late summer of 1835, the fledgling New York newspaper The Sun published the remarkable and “true” account of recent discoveries made upon the moon. Using a newly developed telescope, Sir John Herschel (Royal Astronomer) was able to observe unicorns, bison, birds, and a civilization of winged humanoids. He dubbed these humanoids Vespertilio-homo, the man-bat, and over six installments The Sun described their world.

Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and The Moon: the Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York recounts those weeks when the city was infatuated with the Great Moon Hoax. The book brings together such disparate characters as Sir John Herschel, P.T. Barnum, and Edgar Allan Poe among others. Most entertaining of all, Goodman paints a vivid picture of the city at a time when editors fought not just in print but also in the streets. (Some similarities to the blogosphere can be found.)

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John Harwood’s The Séance

It’s no secret that I love Victorian detective novels, especially of the psychic or supernatural kind. So recently when I heard about John Harwood’s novel The Séance, I figured it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading it. Well, thanks to a June cold that time occurred sooner than I expected.

The Séance is Harwood’s second novel and the follow-up to his International Horror Guild award-winning debut The Ghost Writer. It won last year’s Aurealis Award for Best Horror novel, and Harwood deftly manipulates the conventions of the genre, yet The Séance is more than simply an homage.

At its heart, The Séance is a novel about one woman’s search for identity in a world where any great show of independence, or even self-preservation, would be enough to earn her the label of “moral insanity” and the threat of incarceration in an insane asylum.

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Floating Graveyards of Dead Media: Craig Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum

The case of James Tilly Matthews is considered the first documented case of paranoid schizophrenia in medical history. Matthews, a London tea broker and political activist, believed that a gang of criminals was tormenting him by means of invisible rays emitted by a machine he called the “Air Loom.” He described these torments in physical terms, giving them such names as “Lobster-cracking,” “Stomach-skinning,” and “Apoplexy-working with the nutmeg grater.” He referred to the criminals as “the Middleman,” “the Glove Woman,” “Sir Archy,” and “Bill, the King.”

Matthews credited the Air Loom Gang with causing various British military disasters and claimed that they, along with other associated gangs all over London, were using their invisible rays to influence the minds of politicians. In his way, James Tilly Matthews was the first conspiracy theorist of the Information Age, and Craig Baldwin’s experimental science-fiction film, Spectres of the Spectrum, plays with the same ideas.

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Dragon Chiang and Pure Beautiful Trash

Long before Cormac McCarthy discovered The Road, Dragon Chiang was its disciple.

Possibly the single greatest one-issue comic book series ever put to paper, Dragon Chiang is the rarest of all things: perfect beautiful trash. Tim Truman and Tim Bradstreet got it right the first time and decided to quit while it was perfect. That it’s a comic book relic from the Cold War shouldn’t be held against it. From start to finish Dragon Chiang is the best post-apocalyptic Chinese communist trucker action movie you are ever going to see.

No joke.

It’s right there in all-caps like a fever dream for kids hooked on Twilight 2000 (the role-playing game for boys who thought Red Dawn was the best movie ever). The back of the comic says: “18-WHEELIN’, CHINESE-COMMUNIST, TRUCK-DRIVIN’ ACTION!”

[Do you think anyone could possibly lie about that?]

Arthur Machen and The London Adventure

“For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita.”

I don’t claim to be a Machen scholar; for that you have the works of ST Joshi and John Gawsworth. I just like Machen. His work paved the way for the cosmic Horror genre of Lovecraft, but it also suggested something more positive, something closer to a genre of Awe. Among his most famous works are the short stories “The Bowmen” and “The White People,” and his novels The Three Imposters and The Great God Pan.

The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering was first published in 1924, and it is the third of Machen’s three autobiographies. Not only is it an intriguing memoir, but it’s also the foundation of the urban fantasy genre as practiced by Fritz Leiber and M. John Harrison.

To be perfectly blunt about it, I’ll say it’s one of those books that can possibly change your life.

[Hyperbole abounds…]

Jan Potocki and the Manuscript Found in Saragossa

In the early 18th century Antoine Galland completed what is considered the first European translation of The Thousand and One Nights. To say The Nights captured the popular imagination is an understatement. Count Jan Potocki, a Polish soldier and polymath with a fascination for the occult and secret societies, was one such individual inspired by the translation and crafted his own set of tales in the Galland fashion: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

This book tells the story of a soldier, Alphonse van Worden, who is traveling to Madrid and along the way encounters bandits, cabbalists, scientists, ghosts, the Inquisition, gypsies, and a pair of alluring Muslim princesses who may or may not be his distant cousins. What is real, what is story, and what is dream become so confused that the result achieves an irreverent blend of fantasy and Gothic romanticism. The book’s heroes are not only at odds with the forces of law and order but also with the structures of narrative and plot. There is van Worden’s frame story as he tries to reach Madrid, then there are the stories he encounters on his journey, and then there are the stories within those stories until finally nothing is certain.

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