Monday, 31 October 2016

Shock and Awe – The Monsters We Love (II)

Monsters have the power to show us our fears, but they can also reveal our hidden side, one that is kept out of sight. These are the monsters we are drawn to because they represent something that we are intrigued by, or even desire. These are the monsters that not only chill me, but also inspire me.   


Dracula has gotten a bad rap recently, along with vampires in general, but to me he is one the greatest monsters. What makes or breaks Dracula is the way he is portrayed. Sadly, it is very easy to mess up Dracula, turning him into this cheesy villain who lusts after busty women and speaks with a lisp. But there are times when the stars align and he’s represented in all of his complex glory. To me, the greatest portrayal is the 1979 film Nosferatu The Vampyre by Werner Herzog, starring Klaus Kinski as Dracula. The film was intended to honour the classic 1922 Nosferatu, but I think it eclipses the original. The silent film will always be eerie because of the lack of voices, but the way Dracula speaks in the 1979 film is a huge part of why I love the character.  

Dracula’s look is almost perfect: he’s white as a ghost, dressed in a flowing black cloak, and he literally never blinks once during the entire film. No frills, no red, no pompous hairstyle. His movements swing wildly between apparent frailty and bestial strength. The very first appearance of him is absolutely amazing. He is sluggish in his movements, almost timid. However, as soon as he has the scent of blood, he violently throws aside a chair to get closer to his prey. I think this is the heart of how Dracula should be played – he is almost two different creatures, caught between them. 
The first side of Dracula is the quiet, sorrowful side. He’s a cursed being, doomed to live his nights alone. Nobody knows how long Dracula has been alive. A key moment during the film reveals the inner torment of this monster, all delivered in Klaus Kinski’s frail, sad voice. 

“Time is an abyss, profound as a thousand nights. Centuries come and go. To be unable to grow old is terrible. That is not the worst, there are things more horrible than that. Can you imagine enduring centuries, experiencing each day, the same futile things?” 

The other side of him is that of a predator. Many different stories have attempted to paint vampires as an evolution of humanity, or at least connected somehow. This is not so in Nosferatu The Vampyre. It’s clear that Dracula sees himself as completely separate from humans, identifying more closely with animals. When he hears the howling of the wolves, he tells Jonathan “Listen. Listen. The children of the night make their music.” When Jonathan doesn’t respond, Dracula laments his confusion. He says “You are like the villagers, who cannot place themselves in the soul of a hunter.”  

Like I said before, Dracula is a character with two sides: the cursed being and the monstrous hunter. Exploring both of these aspects of Dracula is what makes him such an interesting and terrifying monster, and definitely one of my favourites


It should be obvious by now that I love Cthulhu. He is such a great monster. Not only is Cthulhu one of the central monsters of H.P. Lovecraft's mythos, which I love from a fiction standpoint, Cthulhu has also been adopted into many areas I also enjoy. Cthulhu appears in video games and even movies from time to time. Then again, most monsters have appeared in these mediums. However, Cthulhu is also huge in metal music. There are many songs and even bands dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos. The band The Great Old Ones is one of my favourites! 

But why has Cthulhu captured our hearts? Simple! Let's just check off the things that makes a cool monster. 
  • Huge, check! 
  • From the stars, check! 
  • Lurks in the ocean, check! 
  • Associated with a fiendish cult, check! 
  • Has mysterious powers unheard of on this planet, check! 
  • Has an octopus face and dragon wings, double check! 

In short, he is a titanic monster that sleeps beneath the black waters only to surface without warning and run amok. You simply cannot beat Cthulhu for style points. It seems like he has everything that would make him extremely likable as a monster concept, which is surprising when you consider he was created almost 100 years ago. Cthulhu has the same kind of appeal that a monster like Godzilla has, but he is more ancient, more mysterious, and adds the whole cosmic horror aspect, which I personally find to be one of the best types of horror out there. The sense that human beings are motes of dust in an infinity large and vastly dangerous universe is the modern horror concept, and I wish it would be tackled by popular media more often. But for now, we always have Cthulhu. 

The Thing

The Thing is an amazing monster that might not be as appreciated these days due to the fact that the concept is quite familiar to modern pop culture. The Thing might not even be the original version of this monster, but to me, it's the best. 

The Thing is the titular monster from 1980s The Thing, a film by John Carpenter. The film takes place in Antarctica, making it an even more secluded vista than usual. A research group stumbles upon the monster, but The Thing has apparently been frozen on Earth for ten thousand years. 

The Thing is an alien being, crashed and stranded here. Its powers are truly terrifying. The Thing can replicate any being that it comes into contact with, killing and taking the place of any human or animal it wants. In fact, we never get to see what the actual "Thing" looks like, because the first time we encounter it, it is in the form of a normal looking dog. To make it even worse, The Thing seems to be able to mimic multiple people at once, or at least, multiple "Things" can exist at the same time. Is it the same Thing, or is it two separate beings each with its own consciousness? We just do not know. 

This is the greatest part about The Thing, and why I think it is such a powerful, terrifying monster: we know nothing about it. We don't know what it actually looks like (Did it ever have an original form? Maybe it was a microscopic virus at the start?), we have no idea what it wants or what its purpose is, and we cannot detect it without drastic measures (Care to light your blood on fire to test?).
This completely mysterious aspect of The Thing makes it one of the best monsters. You can't detect it, you can't reason with it, and you seemingly can't kill it. Other monsters that have used this same idea, for example the T1000 from Terminator 2, can't compete with The Thing. T1000, while powerful and terrifying, had a mission. You know what it wants, and thus can take steps against it. Nobody knows what The Thing wants. 


This one might strike some as an odd choice for Best Monsters, but that is exactly what he is: a monster! In fact, Satan is (probably) the oldest individual Monster that is still firmly lodged into human consciousness. Sure, there are always older monsters, like some of the Greek terrors or ancient Chinese demons, but they are stuck in the realm of mythology. Satan not only still terrifies religious children, he also appears in all kinds of media. He's in books, he's in movies, he's on TV, he is everywhere. 

As a listener of tons of metal bands, Satan is one of the most favoured topics among lyricists. Whether he is trotted out simply to frighten parents and give off a grim vibe, or he is actively being praised as the antithesis of all that is holy, Satan is a potent image. 

One of the best things about Satan is how versatile he is as a concept. To boil Satan down to his original concept, he is the Incarnation of Evil. That's pretty crazy to think about. Anything that can be called morally wrong, Satan is all about. Think about all the awful things that happen on a daily basis; all of this suffering could be laid at the feet of Satan. Who knows? Maybe he is responsible for it.

But then there are the other understandings of Satan. Some treat him as a tragic hero whose pride caused his fall. Still others treat Satan as a boogeyman, some half-goat beast who wanders around at night drinking blood and conducting rituals. I could go on and on. A monster as classic as Satan has been reimagined so many times it's sometimes difficult to remember that his original purpose is to be the ying to God's yang, so to speak. And for me, even a simple concept like that is enough to make him one of my favourite monsters.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Shock and Awe – The Monsters We Love (I)

The nights are getting longer, and the trees have dropped their vibrant façade of summer and revealed a more sinister silhouette.  Creeping shadows abound in the chilling wind.  This is the season for the dark and the damned, the creatures of nightmares.

For the most part, monsters are ugly, loathsome things that are hard to kill and hell bent on killing us.  The disgusting ones are plain enough to see, so there is no need to have a beauty contest here.  This article is devoted to the more evolved ones, those who are more than simply inciting raw fear.  They are the ones who have continued to haunt and mesmerize me long after the nightmare is over.

Elemental Forest God in Hellboy II

The creature unleashed by Prince Nuada like a Pokemon from a golden egg is the last of his kind.  Kept inside the gilded vessel, the monster has the shape and size of a seed pod in his inchoate form.  Once freed, he finds water and grows into a green tentacular giant that towers over buildings.  The Elemental Forest God in Hellboy II is an angry god.

Whipping his strong rubbery limbs, he smashes buildings, destroys vehicles and kills with abandon in retaliation for the never-ending replacement of jungles with concrete.

Inevitably, this green giant is killed.  As the creature lies dying, his body melts onto the building where he rests and turns the urban landscape into a grassy slope complete with flowers blossoming.  His death is utterly beautiful and defiant.  Every last molecule in him seeks to return the manmade world to its natural origin.  I have never felt so sad and guilty seeing a monster perish than to witness this creature’s passing.

The scariest part about the Elemental Forest God is not his appearance or powers, but his death.  His defeat is a frightening reminder of the immense collective power we have as humans for destruction.

Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors

Ah, Audrey II, the genie in a flower pot that promises to make your wishes come true.  All he needs is blood.

Until Seymour pricks his finger by accident, he has no idea how to keep Audrey II alive.  Water doesn’t help, neither does fertilizer.  As soon as the plant tastes blood, however, he blossoms.  Out of pity, Seymour begins to feed the plant regularly with his own blood.  As Audrey II grows, his demand for the sanguine feast becomes increasingly aggressive.  When Seymour turns uncooperative, the botanical devil lures him with promises of making all his dreams come true, including a life with Audrey, the girl of Seymour’s dream.  Unable to overcome the plant’s cunning schemes, both Seymour and his girlfriend Audrey end up being eaten by the monster.

Audrey II is toxic relationship personified.  Like all toxic relationships, our participation is essential, and we feed them with our life while they lasso us with dreams and illusions.  Unlike monsters that chase and kill, Audrey II is stuck in a pot.  His life is completely dependent on the sacrifice of willing victims, and yet, he emerges triumphant.  Not only does he thrive, he has people making cuttings of his new buds for taking back to their homes.

Audrey II sucks blood, but we are suckers for illusions and glamour.

Slake Moths in Perdido Street Station

Tired of being chased and mauled to death by monsters with all things sharp and pointy?  You may prefer the hypnotic wings of the Slake Moths which dazzle you with their endlessly psychedelic patterns.  These life-sized Moths will happily keep you entranced during their attack.  When they are done with you, they won’t leave you dead, just catatonic.

The Slake Moths are one of the many kinds of unique creatures found in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station.  Mieville’s other creations in the book include an artist with an insect head and the re-formed prisoners turned disgraceful cyborgs.  Compared to them, the Slake Moths are still more inventive, and having those wings is just one of the reasons they are such incredible monsters.

First, they don’t want your flesh or your blood.  When they stick their five feet long proboscis into your mouth, they find your brain and drain your dreams.  After your wild thoughts and fantasies have coursed through their digestive tracts, they will be excreted as dreamshit – an expensive drug popular among the inhabitants of New Crobuzon, the city where Perdido Street Station takes place.  Through the Slake Moths, dreams are stolen and repurposed as a commodity.

Second, they fight to be queen.  When the Moths mature, they battle each other for the right to be female.  Only the strongest one is allowed to have her female organs fully formed and ready for conception.

Finally, just look at their wings.  Their ability to mesmerize gives the Slake Moths a Medusa quality.  In both cases, making direct eye contact with them and you are as good as dead.  Like Medusa, the Moths are ugly as hell.  Their wings however, are beautiful enough to stun.

They might be just insects, but the Slake Moths emerge as monsters with a most sophisticated palate.  They only want the most precious thing you have: your dreams and aspirations.

The Mirror in Oculus

In the movie, mirrors don’t just shape the way we see ourselves, the cursed mirror in question dictates what we see.  The movie Oculus is a study of this ironic relationship we have with our sight.  We use it to understand the world around us, and yet, how much of what we see is falsehood and illusion?   If our vision can fool us, how close are we to the precipice of danger before the free fall?

In Oculus, Kaylie was a child when her parents died in bizarre circumstances.  She believes the mirror that her dad had brought into the house was the cause of the tragedy.  More than a decade later, she uses her work connections to find and acquire the cursed mirror.  Her plan is to prove the mirror’s role in her parents’ death by recording how it works to confuse people.  After that, she will see it shattered.

Her elaborate arrangement and safety measures turn out to be useless.  In the presence of the mirror, she and her brother see what it wants them to see.  Amidst the hallucinations, her brother ends up killing Kaylie, thinking he is smashing the mirror.

This evil looking glass joins its famous counterparts such as H.A.L. in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and the One Ring in Lord of the Rings in this elite group of inanimate objects capable of unleashing extreme terror.  Instead of afflicting direct bodily harm, these objects attack our most hidden and vulnerable part: our minds.  In all of these cases, the results are horrifying.

Xenomorph from the Alien movie series

We all know about the pitch-black monster with the elongated head, and we love it.  It’s intelligent, it’s fast, and it has two jaws, one inside the other.  Even his drool is caustic enough to burn through metal.  This thing is terrifying as hell.

Designed by H. R. Giger, famous for his erotic, often phallic creations, the xenomorph is perhaps one the best examples of portraying male sexual power as monster.  Everything from his penial head to his double-jaw thrusts dripping with corrosive spit, the creature screams male sexuality.  His victims are used as either food or vessels for impregnation.   In a twisted, surreal way, he is perhaps the male sexual vehicle manifested at its most primal and perverse essence.  Interestingly, the one person the xenomorph dances with is the woman who doesn’t cower in his presence.  His relationship with Ripley is not unlike that of Rhett and Scarlett’s in Gone with the Wind.  It’s the kind of feisty love story that never gets old, never dies.

*      *      *

If monsters personify our fears, we love them because we want to embrace the dark corners of our mind, the secretive parts, the dangerous parts we cannot and will not share with others.

Who are your favourite monsters?  And what do they say about you?

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

The Ring that Binds Them

The Secret Connection Between Fantasy and Metal

When it comes to art and entertainment, I have two passions: fantasy and metal. I have covered my love for fantasy extensively in some of my previous articles, but I haven’t yet written about metal. Metal is an often-misunderstood genre of rock music whose purposes many believe are to turn the volume to 11, to take everything to the extreme, and to exult in the power that comes from rocking out.

In truth, the metal community is an often insulated group of artists and fans who loves music that focuses on introspection. It may be surprising to some, but one of the major themes in metal music is the exploration of what it means to be human and how we fit into the world around us. As a result, big topics come up quite often in the lyrics: life and death, war, Earth and the Cosmos, and specifically what all these lofty subject matters mean to the fragile beings that we are. In this article, we will explore the ways metal intersects with fantasy, and how the two share an affinity for epic imagery, climactic moments, and everything that is mysterious and mighty.

Huh? Metal and fantasy? What are you talking about? 

Maybe it sounds strange, but metal is continuously inspired by the fantasy genre. Metal not only specifically references fantasy novels, but some bands dedicate their entire ethos to the fantasy genre. One of the best examples I can give of this is the band Summoning.

Summoning is a two-man band from Austria that dedicates their music to exploring fantasy worlds. Since 1995, they have released 11 albums, all of which belong to a sub-genre called black metal. Almost every song in their repertoire is about J. R.R. Tolkien's mythos. References to Lord of The Rings range from the obvious, such as “The Legend of the Master Ring” from their album Minas Morgul to the discreet like “The Mountain King’s Return” from Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame. This latter song refers to Thorin’s return to Erebor and includes in its lyrics a poem from The Hobbit.

Summoning is one of the most well-known metal bands to have used Tolkien’s mythos exclusively for their music, but they are not the only one. Bands like Emyn Muil, Ered Wethrin, Mirkwood, and Moongates Guardian, to name just a few, also produce powerful tunes about Middle Earth. A few examples include "Lament for Gandalf", "Túrin Son of Húrin", and Boromir's Riddle". So why is Tolkien so popular? And for that matter, why are metal bands drawn to fantasy?

Summoning Tolkien

In his professional life, Tolkien was Professor of Anglo-Saxon History at Oxford, and his critique of the Beowulf poem was very influential in the 1930’s. The poem of Beowulf, about a great and powerful warrior defending against a mysterious evil that kills without remorse, inadvertently epitomizes the spirit of metal. Don’t believe it? Give a listen to "Guardians of Asgaard" by Amon Amarth. Even musing on the slaughter in the mead hall recalls the death and battle that metal so often revels in, like on "Blood of My Enemies" by Manowar. This affinity for Beowulf, however, isn't the only thing that makes Tolkien's mythos inspirational to metal bands.

Tolkien was also strongly anti-industrialization, and the way that England’s pastoral landscape was overtaken by concrete, machines, chimneys, and smoke disgusted him. This theme of anti-industrialization, now more commonly known as anti-modernization, seeps into many areas of metal. There are hundreds of bands that identify themselves as pagan metal, the themes of which include oneness with the earth and distance from modern society. One of my favourite songs on this topic is called "I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots" by Wolves In The Throne Room.

Metal musicians see machines as something sinister and diabolical. Machines are not human. It doesn’t take much of a leap in logic for these modern-day Luddites to equate machines with aliens. While Tolkien uses machines to breed orcs; metal takes it a step further and use machines to breed humans. Take for example, Meshuggah’s “Future Breed Machine”.

Finally, it must be remembered that what mainly inspired Tolkien was mythology. He believed that fundamental truths about the world could be found in myths, and sought to capture the spirit of mythos in his writing. This belief that tales from ancient worlds could lead the modern age to find a better understanding of the world is the heart of Nostalgia. The concept of Nostalgia, the belief that the Golden Age of Heroes has long passed, is a perfect fit for metal. It is a double-edged sword, at once glorying at the strength of the mighty and sorrowing at the loss of this time.

Tolkien was moved by the ancient, and those who write, play and listen to metal identify with this sentiment. Thus, Tolkien and his mythos are recognized as a distillation of many of the ideals that metal desires to represent through its music: the glory of the ancient, good versus evil, returning to nature and rejecting the modern, and a general worship of Anglo-Saxon mythology.

Scandinavia - the heart of Metal?

The influence of Anglo-Saxon mythology and especially Beowulf on Tolkien is undeniable. And where did Beowulf take place? Why, Scandinavia of course! Now, there are a lot of differing views and arguments regarding the birth-place of metal, and I’m not about to throw an opinion out. Regardless, Scandinavia is one of the most popular areas for metal. A recently published study greatly underlines this by showing the number of metal bands per every million people in various parts of Europe.

Obviously, Scandinavians love their metal music. For Northern Europeans, metal speaks of the things that they are proud of: a culture deeply rooted in Viking and Norse mythologies. Just as Beowulf and the Norse Sagas have inspired Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, the people of Scandinavia are themselves entranced by their own tales and history. Metal bands influenced by Nordic legends are everywhere, including titans like Amon Amarth and Moonsorrow.

Metal is at its heart a community of like-minded individuals, and trends regardless of geography are easy to see. The large presence of Scandinavian bands does have its influence on metal as a whole. Metal bands are also famous for their desire to one-up each other. This is one of the reasons that metal has become faster, louder, and more extreme as time goes by.

Consequently, as soon as one band writes a song with a few references to Lord of the Rings

another band writes a whole song dedicated to Rivendell…

Then another band writes an entire album dedicated to The Simillarion

Which results in one band dedicating all of their music to the world of Lord of the Rings.


Modern Fantasy and Modern Metal

While the connection between fantasy and metal did start with Tolkien’s Lords of the Rings, hundreds of songs have since been inspired by the works of other fantasy authors. Rather than including the entire song list, I would like to introduce a few hidden gems for your enjoyment. These are bands that dedicate their creative output to the fantasy series of their choosing. For those who are willing to listen, here are some ear-opening treats.

As a direct response to the famous Summoning, a band called Caladan Brood emerges and writes music purely for the world of Malazan, from the series Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson. Caladan Brood plays atmospheric black metal. They seek to capture the epic scope of the novels, while also underline the sorrowful tone of most of the characters.

The aptly named Eternal Champion is a heavy metal band devoted to Michael Moorcock’s concept of the Eternal Champion, a figure that appears in many of his works, but is most closely associated with the famous Elric of Melniboné. Eternal Champion advocates the fantasy ideal of the champion, a mighty hero that cannot be overcome and represents triumph and justice.

Finally, for those willing to plumb the darkest depths of metal, there is Shaidar Logoth, a raw black metal band dedicated to the sinister side of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. The vocals are inspired by the eerie Myrddraal, wraiths that lead the Dark Lord’s armies through fear and violence.

Thank you for staying on till the end and allowing me to share this intriguing intersection of two of the greatest art forms to exist: Fantasy and Metal. If you're also a fan of this kind of music, I invite you to post your favourites!