content by

Leah Schnelbach

Celebrating the Sheer Weirdness of Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle was my first sci-fi. Maybe also my first fantasy. I read her before Lewis, Tolkien, Adams, Bradbury. I was 11 when I read A Wrinkle in Time, and I quickly burned through all the rest of her YA, and I even dug into her contemplative journals a bit later, as I began to study religion more seriously in my late teens.

My favorite was A Swiftly Tilting Planet (I’m embarrassed to tell you how often I’ve mumbled St. Patrick’s Breastplate into whichever adult beverage I’m using as cheap anesthetic to keep the wolves from the door over this past year) but I read all of her books in pieces, creating a patchwork quilt of memories. I loved the opening of this one, a particular death scene in that one, an oblique sexual encounter in another. Bright red curtains with geometrical patterns, The Star-Watching Rock, hot Nephilim with purple hair—the usual stuff. But as I looked back over L’Engle’s oeuvre and I was struck, more than anything, by the sheer weirdness of her work.

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A Love Letter to Mystery Science Theater 3000

Thirty-three years ago, on November 24, 1988, Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered on KTMA, a cable access channel in Minneapolis. In human years, the show is out of college by now (probably), maybe trying to buy a home, or start a family. It bristles when Cheers calls it a millennial—it’s always felt like an old soul, with the references to Get Christie Love and Charlie McCarthy, and-three it gets frustrated when other shows consider it shallow. It’s not just a reference factory, after all. There’s real depth and heart here, if you know how to pay attention.

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The Pros and Cons of the New Cowboy Bebop

The Cowboy Bebop of the 1990s was a delightful show, following Jet and Spike as they bounced from job to job, met Ein, ended up adopting Ein, me Faye, ended up adopting Faye, and finally met Ed, and ended up adopting Ed. The show gave us the adventures of a found family of misfits as they slowly learned to depend on each other. Those adventures were fun, fast-moving, sometimes very violent, and gloried in that decade’s love of mash-up and retro homage. But like fellow ’90s classics The X-Files and Due South, Bebop threaded larger, more serious stories through all the cases of the week and ridiculous banter. Part of why the anime has endured, I think, is that the story of Jet’s old partner, Faye’s pre-cryosleep life, and Spike’s operatic relationships with Vicious and Julia give the hangout episodes a tragic undertone.

Netflix’s update of the show has reconfigured that old balance, sometimes to great effect, but also often to the series’ detriment. Join me for some thoughts and some spoilers!

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8 SFF Twists on Literary Classics

One of the most fun turns in culture has been watching writers from a variety of backgrounds take established Western classics and treat them like glorious playgrounds. I personally like many of the books that are considered classics, or part of “the canon”—especially when I was still a student, I enjoyed the sense of testing myself against the books my teachers assigned, and I found that in top-down structure rewarding. I think an agreed-upon canon is an absolute, non-negotiable foundation for a healthy culture. But: the most vital phrase there is “agreed-upon.” Since…well, forever, really, the canon was populated by as many dead white men as U.S. currency, ignoring or actively quashing voices that didn’t agree with a specific narrative about Western civilization.

The current wave of books that are deconstructing and rebuilding the classics are a fantastic addition to the move to make the canon actually representative of our culture—a move that needs to be fought for ceaselessly as our culture literally lives and dies by it. Here are eight books that are doing the work of reshaping the canon to reflect humanity a little better.

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Better Living Through Melancholy: Poe for Your Problems by Catherine Baab-Muguira

This is a historic day in TBR Stack: my first-ever self-help book! As I operate from a deep well of resentment and self-loathing, I never read self-help books—I honestly don’t know who I’d be if I got better. But when our resident Wheel of Time reader recommended Poe for Your Problems it seemed like I might have found the self-help book for me, and I was right. Baab-Muguira draws life lessons from Edgar Allan Poe’s tortured miserable life to offer advice to artists, writers, depressives, megalomaniacs, the terminally online

And again, I don’t read in this genre, but this book is hilarious and honestly helpful.

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Eternals Is a Superhero Primer on Gnosticism

First things first: overall, I liked Eternals. (Possibly more than my beloved colleague Emmet?) While I agree that there were creaky bits, some of the dialogue was too stilted, and there was just a bit too much going on, I liked that the movie tried to do something different within the framework of a Marvel movie. I also like Chloe Zhao’s other work quite a bit, and I love the work of one of her major influences, Terrence Malick. (I never thought I’d get to see the spirit of Malick processed through a Marvel filter, so that alone was exciting to me? Now if I get my dearest wish, Martin Scorsese and Marvel burying the hatchet so Scorsese can give us his gritty take on Nightcrawler, I will at last know happiness.) The moment the Eternals meet humanity for the first time is a superheroic riff on Malick’s The New World, just as their ship could be seen as a skewed take on 2001’s Monolith—technological advances arriving hand-in-hand with exploitation, opportunity and adventure carrying suffering in their wake.

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What We Do in the Shadows’ Third Season is a Masterpiece of Character Development.

It would have been easy to make What We Do in the Shadows a hangout sitcom. One of those pleasant, easy half-hours where the viewer checks in to see what wacky adventures the vampires get up to this week. They are, after all, immortal. There is plenty of guaranteed humor to be mined from placing a character like Nandor the Relentless or Laszlo Cravensworth in modern New York, and just, like, coasting. Play up some local humor about how Staten Island is a bit different from the other four boroughs of New York. Send the gang on a road trip, to a community board meeting, to a baseball game. Use Colin Robinson’s role as an energy vampire to do a slightly gothier take on The Office, week after week. Keep mining Guillermo for the nerdy frustration of being a familiar. After all, the show did variations on these ideas in their first seasons, and created some of the best horror comedy of recent years. If they had decided to be a hangout show, they would have made an incredible hangout show.

Instead, the writers have committed to some of the most subtle, gradual character growth I’ve seen on television.

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A Comprehensive and Infallible Ranking of Community’s Halloween Costumes

Like a lot of people, I spent part of the last 18 months in a sporadic Community rewatch. The show gave us two excellent Halloween episodes, one perfect Halloween episode… and that one from Season Four. I spent some quality time ranking the Study Group’s costumes, along with a few others I thought needed attention.

A caveat: I didn’t really dig the fourth, non-Harmon season of the show—but whatever. Overall the series is a miraculous piece of storytelling and character development, and I still want a movie.

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The Greatest Halloween Costumes in Pop Culture

Halloween is inarguably one of the best times of year—a holiday where you can become anyone for a whole day? Sign us up! But we’re not the only ones who enjoy passing ourselves off as other people. It’s not at all uncommon for fictional characters to take the time to dress up and party on All Hallow’s Eve, too! With that in mind, here are some favorite moments where science fiction/fantasy characters wore costumes on Halloween….

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Vampire Weeknight: Does Night Teeth Bite Off More Than It Can Chew?

Can we all take a moment to appreciate that we live in a post-John Wick world? The we regularly get films that—whatever their base quality—are glowing haven of bi-lighting, neo-‘80s beats, buzzing neon, nostalgia for a time that never was? That we woke up one day and there was some sort of loose, unspoken Weetzie Bat Cinematic Universe?

I am speaking, of course, of the new vampire movie Night Teeth. There’s some fun stuff in Night Teeth! But the element that hit me the hardest was this exact nebulous aesthetic, like if someone listened watched Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and then listened to The Weeknd’s After Hours, and was like, “That, but with vampires! That’s the movie!”

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The Very Model of a Major Modern Gothic: The Keep by Jennifer Egan

Meta-novels are my favorite. I think it’s just that I love layers: be it trifle or lasagna or tree rings or Hawaiian shirts over tank tops, long, onion-y conversations with people who are willing to open up and reveal hidden pasts—I like having to work for fun.

Which is why Jennifer Egan’s 2006 quasi-neo-gothic The Keep is the perfect October book for me. There are sections that are creepy, a few that are genuinely terrifying, but it’s all wrapped in a narrative that plays with the conventions of the gothic novel and the ghost story.

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Moviegoing During a Pandemic

The debate about going out to movies during what is still very-much-ongoing pandemic keeps spiking every time Denis Villeneuve or Christopher Nolan gives an interview, and every time a movie trailer ends with the proud declaration: “Only in Theaters.”

Because obviously, it’s not quite as simple as: “don’t go to in-theater movies yet, it still isn’t safe”—the way we experience art is important, the communal nature of moviegoing is important, and supporting the work of artists, especially marginalized artists, is important. As the months have gone on, the three of us have talked endlessly about our relationship with movies in general and theatergoing in particular, and after the one-two punch of seeing The Green Knight and Shang-Chi together we decided to hash out some thoughts.

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JAMIE WEPT: Jamie Clayton to Play Pinhead in Hulu’s Hellraiser Reboot

We’ve got a new Pinhead! Jamie Clayton, recently seen in Sense8 and The L Word: Generation Q, has been announced as the iconic character in David Bruckner’s new adaptation of Hellraiser for Hulu. Author/director/general-Hellraiser-architect Clive Barker has also joined the project as a producer.

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Religious Horror and Horrific Religion in Midnight Mass

Of all the subgenres of horror, religious horror tends to be my favorite. When it’s good, you get all-time classics like Rosemary’s Baby, Hereditary, and The Exorcist. When it’s over-the-top, you get operatic shit like The Omen, Hellraiser, or, for my money, Constantine. And when it commits to being goofy as hell, you get… The Conjuring series. Even the bad examples of the genre will provide decent exorcism scenes or fun Satanic cults. And religious horror has inspired fantastic comedy like Good Omens, SNL’s Exorcist II, and some of the funniest scenes in This is the End.

This essay is going to dive into Midnight Mass’ place in the tradition of religious horror, and the Catholic iconography used—and it’s going to spoil everything, so if you want a light spoiler review you can head over here, but otherwise this essay assumes you’ve watched the whole show.

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