In 1994, Creation published The Starry Wisdom, a collection of Lovecraft-inspired stories that remains the standard on how to take an author’s aesthetic and transplant it into different times and styles. Cyberpunk Lovecraft, beat Lovecraft, whatever. This isn’t an uncommon thing to try now (Nick Mamatas does it often), but at the time, it was almost revelatory. It was ambitious, far-reaching, and studded with big names (Ramsay Campbell, Alan Moore, JG Ballard) and classic stories.
In 2009, we got this Starry Wisdom Part 2: Featuring Worse Writers.
The book is shorter, and decidedly unstudded with big names. No Ballard. No Gira. Moore doesn’t contribute prose. Coulthart doesn’t contribute art. No Campbell or Burroughs. Whitechapel wrote a story, but it doesn’t appear here. At least we don’t have to read James Havoc’s girlfriend this time around, so thank fuck for that.
Instead, the material is written by guys from Creation and Savoy (Havoc, Britton, Mitchell…), with several obvious pen-names, and weird Japanese hentai crap. The results are uneven. Kenji Siratori doesn’t write a story so much as drop a bomb into the book, reducing clean virgin paper into a 5-page blast radius of sheer noise. Then there’s “visual art” by some guy called Wakamatsu Yukio. Japanese women covered in dead goldfish. Is that your thing? I confess it isn’t mine.
Black Wurm Gism has a talent problem, and also a value problem. Even with all the stupidity and filler, the book barely makes it to the 180 page mark. The Starry Wisdom was nearly forty pages longer, and had far more actual stories. Black Wurm Gism blows a lot of pages on odd surrealistic gestures.
The Starry Wisdom was dominated by conventional horror fiction, with a few experiments. Here the experiments dominate, with conventional horror fiction only briefly appearing like snatches of music emerging out of the atonal mess of an orchestra tuning up. DM Mitchell states that his intention was to steer Black Wurm Gism away from being a horror collection. He certainly succeeded – or failed, depending on your tastes. Personally, I would rather read JG Ballard than Kenji Siratori.
I liked the strange parts of Starry Wisdom, but Black Wurm Gism is obsessed with not making sense, and it leaves me cold. Why must everything be experimental and bizarre? Couldn’t they have included more than a few actual stories? If it’s an issue of content, what about William Hope Hodgeson…his work is now in the public domain now, isn’t it?
David Britton contributes a story from the Lord Horror universe. James Havoc co-writes a piece with “Herzan Chimera” (apparently comic artist Mike Philbin)…it’s funny seeing his prose straightjacketed into conventional style, like ape in a three piece suit. Otherwise it’s a steady trudge of obscurantist nobodies. Once the aforementioned fish-porn piece ends, we get the wonderfully titled but nearly unreadable “Machines Are Digging” by Reza Negarestani, a name I keep seeing in these kinds of books. He writes in a new genre called “theory fiction”, and it’s fairly clear why it’s a new genre.
If you liked the first book and want another fix, Songs of the Black Wurm Gism is what you’re looking for. But be warned: this time the china white has been cut with sawdust. It’s an inferior product, and I wish Mitchell had thrown Siratori and Negarestani and all the rest of these dickfucks away, kept the good stories, and released them in an updated version of Starry Wisdom. Horror collections live and die on the strength of their stories. Ten pages of naked women covered in fish is not a substitute.
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I don’t like what HP Lovecraft has become. Read most modern Lovecraft-inspired books, and coinage like “literary strip mining” comes to mind – people insist on demystifying his mysteries, classifying what’s meant to be unclassifiable, and ruining or ignoring what was great about his stories. The Cthulhu Mythos (ew) is now a parody: as dull and overfamiliar as a Marvel comic book character roster. What everyone needs to do to Lovecraft is leave him alone, and stop scribbling graffiti over his tombstone. There’s something about being able to buy Cthulhu plush toys that makes him not seem cool any more.
With that said, The Starry Wisdom is a strong collection of stories. It doesn’t take itself seriously, and it doesn’t treat Lovecraft as some kind of holy canon. It contains a lot of tones and moods, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of subject matter that Lovecraft would have been appalled by.
JG Ballard’s “Prisoner of the Coral Deep”, Ramsey Campbell’s “Potential” and John Beal’s “Beyond Reflection” are fairly conservative, but most of the others are full of graphic sex and violence. Some authors take shock value to ludicrous extremes, packing in the sickness and depravity until the stories resemble nasty little transgression piñatas?. Others throw narrative away altogether, and instead try to evoke a strange mood.
Alan Moore contributes three stories – I’m not used to reading him unaccompanied by comic book art. As a stylist he resembles Clive Barker, with a lot of florid, overheated imagery. “The Courtyard” is the best of the three. Michael Gira’s “The Consumer” is a blistering missive written in all caps, reading it feels like being gripped in an enormous fist and shaken. Simon Whitechapel’s “Walpurgisnachtmusik” is intense and strangely synaesthesic – one of the few written stories that I can hear as well as read.
There’s some comix, too. James Havoc contributes “Teenage Timberwolves”, with artist Daniele Sierra backing him up from the shotgun position. Like all of Havoc’s work it manages to be stupid, outrageous, and entertaining. John Coulthart’s famed interpretation of “The Call of Cthulhu” is featured here, but I fear he indulges in some of what I mentioned before, like over-literalisation of Lovecraft’s work. When we actually see Cthulhu, the result is anticlimactic. Someone like Junji Ito would probably have fared better. To be fair, the book is too small to do justice to Coulthart’s art – lines and words pack the pages like sardines in a tin. Creation were many things, but purveyors of impeccable artisanship is not one of them. I seem to recall a certain Suehiro Maruo “artbook” consisting of low-res jpegs copied off the internet…
Some stories hit, other stories miss, there’s a story called “Hypothetical Materfamilias” that misses so hard that it just about circles the world and strikes the target from the other side. Adele Olivia Gladwell was apparently Havoc’s girlfriend, and I hope he got lots of anal in return for this because it’s retarded and annoying and resembles something Burroughs would write if he was twelve years old and in SPED class. Speak of the devil: Burroughs has a story in this book too. When I read his work I always feel like I’m missing a trick – like I’m the mark in some joke or con and he’s laughing at me from the other side of the page. I didn’t understand Naked Lunch and I don’t understand this one, either.
But there are so many stories by so many authors that you’d be hard pressed not to find something you like. Don’t even think of it as being Lovecraft-inspired – the connection is vague and best, and Starry Wisdom is better seen as a collection of extreme/transgressive literature. Lovecraft would have spat venom upon this book, but it works for me.
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I am heavily OD’d on this album, but my impression is of an album that is good bordering on excellent. It’s not THE power metal album, but it’s a good release worthy of bearing the Masterplan name.
The Masterplan name, by the way, was suggested by a Brazilian fan in 2002 who was delighted that so many master musicians were planning together. They were a nearly a definitive heavy metal supergroup, made up of cast-offs from Helloween, Iron Savior, and Ark. Roland Grapow’s modern and progressive riffing style plus Uli Kusch’s dizzying technical drumbeats plus Jorn Lande’s continent-filling vocals equaled very, very good music.
Unfortunately, problems started setting in after their second album: slackening record sales, a feud between Uli and Roland, and worst of all, a singer who just didn’t care that much. Since then the band has been like a drowning man being pulled downstream and clutching at eddying pieces of driftwood. New singers, new drummers, new styles. After the dry, Scorpions-inspired Time to Be King, Novum Initium finds the band playing power metal, this time with Rick Altzi on vocals and an incredibly powerful new drummer called Martin Skaroupka. If Kusch was Les Binks then Skaroupka is Scott Travis – relentless double-bass flurries and lightning fast snare fills, amplified by a production job so dense and heavy that Novum Initium borders on sounding ridiculous.
There’s still a bit more midtempo material than is really needed, but Novum Initium regains the ground lost by Time to be King, and introduces some interest progressive elements.
“The Game” is ferociously fast, with many different sections. “Black Night of Magic” is a bit like “Kind Hearted Light” on the debut, except with the riffs stealing market share from the keyboards instead of the other way around. “Pray on My Soul” is an adequate midtempo unit-shifter. The ballad “Through Your Eyes” is musically well done, although the production is too heavy and compressed to work for this sort of song. It’s like the band is performing open heart surgery with a sledgehammer.
“Betrayal” features prominent sitar sections and an agitated chorus, but the best song is “Return to Avalon”, a simple tribute to Helloween that does not do a single thing wrong. It’s catchy enough to be memorised after your first listen, but it has enough contrapuntal intrigue and complexity for that not to be your last listen. The chord changes backing the final repetition of the chorus are brilliant.
The final song is the 10:17 title track. I had high expectations, and they were kind of met. It’s an impressive musical achievement, with Roland bashing out lots of low-end riffs and keyboardist Axel Mackenrott laying down atmosphere like a bastard. But it lacks the flying speed and majesty of “Black in the Burn” and feels like too little bread spread over too much butter (or whatever hobbits say). Still, that final chorus is a thing of beauty. I think it would have been better if they’d shaved two or three minutes off – I’m not picky where.
Masterplan is not down and they’re not out. They don’t match their first three albums, and they probably never will, again, but they’re still a massive threat. If nothing else, it beats the latest Helloween album, and that’s kind of the whole reason this band exists.
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