So, I’ve had difficulties keeping up on my blogging this year. I haven’t posted a thing since August, when I gave my take on the situation regarding Weird Tales and their current editor and publisher (if you haven’t read that yet, please do; it’s my favorite blog post from this year, for many reasons). That’s not for a lack of material, but (not so) simply personal matters. I’ve also had my fair share of great reading, listening, and viewing this year, all of which I meant to dissect at some point earlier this year before I fell into radio silence.
I’m still working on a big ol’ end-of-year personal recap for 2012, which might be a while in coming along. So, I’ve decided to share the books, TV, music, and movies that left a strong impression on me this year in the meantime. Keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily the best of 2012 per se, but the best of what I encountered this year. I’m still more behind on my To-Read/To-Watch lists than I would prefer to be.
A short list of some of my favorite books from this year can be found up at Weirdfictionreview.com in their recent End of Year Booklist (which you should read anyway, just because our contributors have fantastic taste). So, I’m high on books like Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath and comics like Prophet and Tale of Sand. Here are some other books I really enjoyed this year, some weird-centric and some not.
Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood: Recommended to me by Sarah Fletcher at WFC in Toronto during the Cheeky Frawg/VanderMeer launch party. Great short novel about a writer who is drafted into service for a brilliant, eccentric director who is trying to corral a difficult film project while his family is effectively trapped in Austria during the 30s while Hitler’s forces march through Europe. Partly a blithely comic take on the creative/moviemaking process, partly a chronicle of a difficult time in history.
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente: Before this year more or less railroaded me, I was planning a novelette/novella in part dealing with consciousness and AI, and so I took the opportunity to read this novella. I think very highly of it, in part for how Valente pulls off the emotional and personal development of an AI as a character and narrator. There’s also a strong emphasis on tying science fictional concepts to myth and fantasy, but that’s no surprise, considering the writer.
Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory: Potent, imaginative collection of stories from Loory, who I met at ReaderCon this year thanks to my friend and WFR colleague Nancy Hightower. The language is stripped down and simple, exposing the characters and scenes in such a way that, however fantastical they become (and they do get quite out there), I was always there with the stories, never doubting what I read. It’s an interesting approach, mostly because a lot of writers think suspension of disbelief is best accomplished with a bounty of detail, when in fact an anonymical approach can be quite effective sometimes.
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord: Wonderful novel about a woman who flees her gluttonous husband and is bestowed with godlike power over the forces of chaos and chance – which attracts the attention of the god who lost those powers in the first place. A treat for the imagination, with its humor, mythic resonance, and sweet emotional core. I found myself wanting to believe in the story, however bizarre or fantastical it became. Required reading for anyone who enjoys fantasy.
The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola: Another bit of required reading for anyone who enjoys fantasy. In fact, make it a doubleheader with Indigo. Very surreal imagination, clearly influenced by African myth and folklore while doing its own very distinctive thing. I saw it in part as an African odyssey story, about a man who follows his palm wine tapster into the land of the dead to try and bring him back to the land of the living. It’s much, much weirder than that though.
One Soul by Ray Fawkes: This graphic novel absolutely broke my heart, and I loved it. It tells the story of eighteen different people throughout the history of humanity, from birth to death. These stories are told – and meant to be read – concurrently. In fact, the pages of the comic are arranged in such a way that there are eighteen panels across a two-page spread, with each panel being dedicated to each character. Some characters have more tragic lives than the others. Some die much earlier than the others. All of them face the hard, unending questions of life and death, which made me consider those same questions on my own and place my own life along theirs. A deeply felt, moving experience that I would force all of my friends to read, should the chance arise.
Windeye by Brian Evenson: Collection of short stories from one of the freakiest, most unnerving imaginations I’ve ever encountered. When I read through the collection earlier this year to select a story for Weirdfictionreview.com, I ultimately decided on “Legion,” a story about robots (?) that steal body parts from dead people and attach them to their bodies. That meant overlooking other, equally weird and unsettling stories. Personal favorites include the title story, “Grottor,” “The Sladen Suit,” and “Angel of Death.”
“The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” by Ken Liu: Another absolute heartbreaker of a story. Written in the form of a documentary (duh), it’s about husband-and-wife scientists who pioneer a form of time travel – more accurately, time observance – and then use it to try and help victims of a massive historical atrocity – Unit 731 in World War II – gain true acknowledgment of their suffering. The form of the story matches the content brilliantly. More than that, though, it affected me on a cellular emotional level, which is a rare occurrence. I hope history eventually identifies this story as a classic.
The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer: This is such a given, considering where I work and who I work for. That said, this is an amazing collection of short stories and novellas. What I really enjoy are the stories I haven’t previously encountered , like Eric Basso’s “The Beak Doctor” and “The Other Side of the Mountain” by Michel Bernanos.
Illyria by Elizabeth Hand: The best YA novel I’ve read recently, and one of the best novels. Lots of complex family history propels this novel, rooted in a firm awareness of familial past and the destinies we may or may not buy into for ourselves, but the heart of the novel is the thorny, tender relationship between two cousins who find themselves involved in both the theater and each other. This is one of those novels where the fantastical element is subtle, yet utterly necessary. You’ll think you have it pegged midway through the novel, but by the end you’ll be proven wrong, and you’ll love it.
The Honey Month by Amal El-Mohtar: Lush, sensual language and a free-flowing imagination make this collection of poems and stories well worth your time. Amazing to think the prompting for this whole book was El-Mohtar receiving and tasting 28 days’ worth of honey. Now, not only do I want to get back into poetry, but I also want to taste honey. Lots and lots of honey.
Shriek: An Afterword and Finch by Jeff VanderMeer: Back in May of 2007, I read City of Saints and Madmen, which introduced me to both the city of Ambergris and Jeff’s writing. This year, I closed the circuit by reading Shriek and Finch. Both novels are resonant, imaginative, immaculately written affairs, which is even more notable when one considers how different the two novels are from one another (one is a fictional memoir of a sister of a discredited historian who knows far too much about Ambergris, the other is a detective story of a city at war). Reading these novels really reminded me of how much I still want to push myself with my own writing.
Troll: A Love Story by Johanna Sinisalo: I had such a wonderful time reading this novel for WFR.com earlier this year. This novel is about a photographer who finds a lost troll cub by his apartment block one day and decides to adopt it. Housetraining, sex, and ultimately violence and abduction ensue. This book is begging for a movie adaptation, I tell you. (Maybe the Trollhunter fellows could get on it.)
The Moment of Change edited by Rose Lemberg: I reviewed this anthology for WFR.com earlier this year when we ran poems from Sofia Rhei and Lisa Bradley. My feelings about this collection are still very much the same: it’s the best poetry anthology I’ve read in some time.
Adventure Time: I finally got into this show a month ago or so, and in that time it’s become my favorite show currently on television. It’s one of those shows you can come into at any and enjoy, more or less, but the ongoing story of Finn and Jake and the people of Ooo is surprisingly baroque and compelling, with a robust backstory. I want to write novels like this.
Regular Show: The main characters are twenty-something slackers, a blue jay and a raccoon, who work at a city park with a yeti, a humanoid lollipop, a fat green man, a ghost with a hand protruding from its head, and an anger management-challenged gumball machine man. The show gets weirder and funnier from there. Basically, it’s an excuse for the writers to come up with seemingly ordinary setups for episodes and then carry them to the most absurd, surreal extent possible. I love it.
Archer: The ongoing chronicles of the most inept spy agency in the world. Another one of those shows I just discovered earlier this year, thanks to Netflix. The voice acting is damn near perfect, and the chemistry between the characters rivals what you would find on most well-done live action shows (it’s very reminiscent of Arrested Development at times).
The IT Crowd: Just a great sitcom, basically. Two IT geeks and the hapless new employee asked to chair department because she lied on her resume about being good at computers. Shenanigans ensue. The show has a surprisingly bizarre imagination at its heart, which is probably why I enjoy it so much. That, and it’s legitimately funny.
Blackadder Goes Forth: From what I understand, this is the best of the Blackadder series. I’ve only ever watched this series of the show, but I can say that it’s really funny, the best I’ve ever seen Rowan Atkinson in anything. It somehow manages to make World War I funny, even while it actually goes to serious places as the series goes on. It’s like the writers ultimately acknowledged you can joke about war as much as you want, but in the end it’s still war.
Twin Peaks: Again, Netflix. I’m not going to recap this show because it’s a classic. Still, it was about damn time I watched this show. Unsurprisingly, I loved it. I could take or leave some of the more soap opera-ish small town interactions (although some of them were amusing diversions from the main action). That said, I ate up the main storylines and the knotty, mythical backstory like a greedy little child. The season finale is as insane and glorious as advertised. I still say the best part of the show is David Lynch as hearing impaired Agent Gordon Cole, however.
Game of Thrones: I actually watched both seasons of GoT this year, thanks to a timely free preview of HBO. I enjoyed it enough that I picked up paperback editions of the fantasy saga that inspired it. The Battler of Blackwater Bay at the end of Season Two was pretty fantastic. That boat blew up real purty…
The Twilight Zone: I rediscovered this show thanks to Netflix, watching fifty-odd episodes in an attempt to reappraise old favorites and find new ones. This show is still excellent. Some of the episodes have not dated well, but many of them have held up well with the passage of time. Episodes that especially impressed me were “Walking Distance,” “Perchance to Dream,” “The Four of Us Are Dying,” “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” “A World of Difference,” “A Stop at Willoughby,” “The Howling Man,” “The Eye of the Beholder,” “Deaths-Head Revisited,” “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” and “The Masks.” I’m still not done watching TTZ either; don’t be surprised if I return to this show later for blog posts.
The Prisoner: Another classic show that I finally got to watch this year, and I loved it. One of the better mindscrews I’ve watched, all told, and the libertarian philosophy underlying much of the show didn’t rub me the wrong way, probably because of how it was handled within the context of the story. Very inventive and twisty in the right ways, for the most part. And that finale was even more demented than the finale for Twin Peaks.
The Raid: Redemption: I have a weakness for really well-done, balls-to-the-wall action movies, and this one is the best I’ve seen all year. The fight scenes are outstanding set pieces, some of the best I’ve ever seen. As an added bonus, the story itself is pretty decent. But, yeah, the action.
Hardware: This one’s on Netflix. It was made back in 1990 on a fairly small budget by Australian director Richard Stanley. Premise: in Mega City One (yes, the same Mega City One from the Judge Dredd comics!), this found-art sculptor accidentally comes upon a piece of sentient ex-military grade technology and has to fight it off when it reactivates and causes holy hell in her apartment building. What impressed me about the movie was how cohesive it felt as a story. It’s got lots of weird flourishes in it, especially towards the end when the machine reaches peak power, and the overall set design and style of the movie helps maximize its potential.
The Dust Devil: Another movie from Richard Stanley, his follow-up to Hardware in fact. This one’s about a mystical serial killer stalking Namibia and taking victims for an unexplained ritual. A white woman fleeing her husband gets caught up with the killer – who also happens to be white – while a black police officer tails the titular dust devil (he’s a kind of demon; that’s not a spoiler, by the way). Really imaginative, certainly weird, with a unique aesthetic all its own. There’s also a really strong cultural subtext to the movie, with its attention to racial tension in Namibia and indigenous folklore/beliefs. Highly recommended. Do be warned, though, that apparently there are multiple cuts of this movie available. The version on Netflix, which I watched, is 89 minutes. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but the Director’s Cut is much longer and available somewhere, somehow.
Timecrimes: One of my favorite SF films of the year. Spanish-language movie about a man who, through a series of accidents, is caught in a time travel loop while trying to evade a sinister killer. That’s all I’m going to say about it because anything else would be a spoiler. I will say I thought it was really tightly written and appropriately mindscrewy.
Little Shop of Horrors: Yeah, I’m pretty sure most everyone is familiar with this one by now. My first time seeing it, though, and I loved it. I was humming the songs for days afterward.
Cropsey: Really interesting documentary about a series of murders on Staten Island and how they played into the creation of the myth of this boogeyman-like killer, which in turn affected how future crimes in the area and the area itself were perceived. Definitely one of those movies where the central mystery only spirals out more and more as its investigated. It also partly involves a strong, shocking examination of mental health care back in the 70s and how that may have played a role in things.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles: Great documentary about the Toynbee Tiles, which have been appearing in cities across America for a few decades now, and the documentarians’ efforts to figure out who has been making them and why. Really, Resurrect Dead and Cropsey make for a great double-feature for what I would call “weird reality.” The narratives laid out in these films match step-for-step some of the best stories I’ve seen and read in mysteries or weird fiction, except they come from what we would consider real life.
I Saw the Devil: Powerful, disturbing revenge story, Korean language. It reminded me of Oldboy, only more violent. The villain is thoroughly depraved and unapologetic, and he does horrible things to women. I would understand if this movie set off triggers for people. I ultimately viewed it as a sad, unsettling story of utter evil and how someone could himself or herself devolve into evil while trying to gain retribution.
Lake Mungo: Really creepy mockumentary filmed a few years ago, but I discovered it this year through the recommendations of friends. One of the better ghost stories I’ve seen in recent memory. Way better than Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project. The movie bends and folds back on itself all throughout, constantly making you stop and re-evaluate what you think might be going on. It’s maybe 85 minutes, but it makes every minute count.
Network: Probably falls under “You mean you hadn’t watched this yet?” It’s a classic for a reason. Stunningly written and acted, watching it now feels downright prophetic in its searing look at broadcast television and corporate culture and economy (it was filmed in 1976, I think).
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil: Maybe the best horror spoof I’ve seen. Very fun and clever. Basically takes the stereotypical rednecks you find in most slasher movies, the ones who are usually the bad guys, and turns them into sympathetic protagonists who flounder and flop into situations that make them look like your average slasher killer.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale: I used to tell people Die Hard was my favorite Christmas movie. Rare Exports has likely replaced it in my esteem. It’s basically a piss-take on Gremlins-style horror-comedy movies, only the monster in this movie is Santa Claus (well, Krampus anyway, the real Santa). Fairly demented and lots of fun.
Catfish: Really unsettling documentary about a guy who finds himself in an Internet relationship with a woman, then tracks her down in real life and discovers that she’s not who she claims to be. This movie actually frightened me more than most of the horror movies I saw this year. Part of that comes from realizing just how easily someone could be screwing with you online. The other part comes from pretty much everything in the movie after the documentarians discover the woman’s fraud. The extent to which she falsifies her life and the degree to which her online life diverges from her real one is staggering. There’s actually some controversy about this movie in regards to whether much of it was staged or not. I think it’s a valid discussion, but that doesn’t stop the movie from freaking me the hell out.
Session 9: Another quality horror movie. Basically, these guys have to gut this abandoned mental asylum and refit it for business-industrial use, and of course it’s creepy as hell, and things go to pot from there for all involved. Another one of those movies I would love to go into more detail on except for risk of spoilers. I will say it’s one of those movies where you have to be observant from the very beginning to pick up on key clues. Also, the supernatural element is very subtle, and also very ambiguous, to the point that you could argue whether it’s there or not. I would argue that it’s there.
The Masque of the Red Death: I went through a phase this year of watching all of the Vincent Price/Roger Corman adaptations of Poe I could get my hands on. They varied in quality, by and large, but I thought Masque was rather excellent. Somewhat straightforward adaptation of the original story, with lots of intriguing psychedelic touches. The set design and style for the movie is the most notable element of it, and there’s a scene at the end that reminds me really strongly of Neil Gaiman’s conception of the Endless in The Sandman.