Armagideon Time

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there’s this isolated polar research station inhabited by an extremely irritable group of military men and scientists…

…which is unexpectedly infiltrated by something in a familiar form.

Things get a bit dicey when members of the research team start to dig a little deeper into the mystery…

…sowing further confusion and consternation among the staff.

Things rapidly go downhill from there, with multiple fatalities and the complete destruction of the facility.

The two survivors of massacre are left to confront each other in the smoldering ruins.

(panels from Alpha Flight #9, April 1984; by John Byrne, Andy Yanchus, and Michael Higgins)

Between this and the Plodex/Master arc a few issues before, it’s pretty clear which 1982 sci-fi/horror flick got its hooks into ol’ Johnny B’s imagination. I’m a bit surprised he dipped into that well twice in the space of less than a year, but I’d wager the whole “Thing/Thing” thing was too tempting to let slide. This was a man who spent years collaborating with Claremont, after all.

Recommended listening:

Ghosts as sheet-sporting shades of the dead do not exist.

Ghosts as unpleasant manifestations of past trauma totally do exist. In fact, my corpus is a veritable spookhouse of such entities, and their visitations have grown more frequent in recent years.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the more malevolent ones:

The Flayed Knee Nightmare: This one has been vexing me regularly since the last day of 9th grade, when I took a tumble off a scooter, stripping the skin of both my kneecaps and replacing it with bits of gravel and other road debris. My mother tried to exorcise it with long soaks in epsom-laced bathwater and peroxide washes, but the entity still manifests during long walks or any time I try to kneel.

The Carpal Phantom: The summoning process took roughly two decades but it’s been having a grand old time ever since. It’s frolicking in its domain even as I type this.

The Lumbar Devil: It came to me at my pan-washing station at the hospital kitchen. “You can totally lift that stack of twenty sheet pans over your head, Andrew,” it whispered to me. I was young and foolish. I listened to the beast. And my fate was sealed.

The Ankle-geist: Occasionally works in concert with the Lumbar Devil, but mostly shows up to remind of the many times I landed too hard or too awkwardly on my right foot over the years.

The Dead Finger: Not a presence but a void. No sensations can be felt on the pad of my right index finger, thanks to a curse inflicted by a rabbit who thought my digit was a carrot.

The Festering Maw: This is what happens when years of poverty, neglect, and laziness are allowed to ferment over a long period of time in a warm wet place. Sometimes agonizing, sometimes embarrassing, but always pretty disgusting. I’ve begun to bring this one to heel, but it has not been an easy (or cheap) process.

Recommended listening:

The Seventies were a demon-haunted decade, fraught with nightmares both real and imagined. The energy crisis and socio-economic malaise competed with various paranormal phenomena for space in the anxiety cortex of the collective consciousness. Paranoia triggers lurked around every corner, and the mass media wasn’t above amplifying those fears for increased market share and profit.

Killer bees were on a relentless march north, Satan and his cult minions stalked the suburbs, and the world order teetered on the edge of eminent collapse. And the oversized Baby Boomer demographic had begun to edge into its thirties, and that existential crisis provided fertile ground for various projections, deflections, and sublimations regarding the growing sense of their own mortality and its co-morbid contemplation of diminished expectations.

What else was there to do by the latter half of the Me Decade but to send in the clones?

Clones and similar forms of artificial life had been a staple of sci-fi for decades, but they saw a brief uptick in prominence during the tail end of the Carter years. This was partially due to Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil — a potboiler best-seller about fugitive Nazi scientists attempting to resurrect the Third Reich by creating young clones of their fallen Führer. The public’s awareness (and therefore its anxiety) of reproductive manipulation was further heightened by high profile news coverage — and the requisite editorializing — surround the birth of the world’s first “test tube baby” in 1978, which in term triggered a attention cycle stream of sensationalized (if not outright) spurious reports of advancements in genetic engineering.

The issues and anxieties involved were well-tailored for the moment — boomer morality and parental anxiety and the narrowing of horizons and just one more damn way science had gotten ahead of society’s ability to grapple with the implications. The 1979 thriller (and future MST3K fodder) Parts: The Clonus Horror coasted on the heels of Robin Cook’s Coma, shifting the dodgy organ harvesting conspiracy from deliberate medical “mishaps” to a campus full of oblivious replacement parts.

Even major label pop music got into the spirit with a pair of tunes about the perils of asexual reproduction.

Alice Cooper’s “Clones (We’re All)” was a former Teenage Frankenstein’s stab at retaining relevance in a post-Pleasure Principle world. That might be why it’s one of the few songs of his I actually enjoy, though its performance clip appearance on Pink Lady & Jeff and the Epoxies’ excellent cover version shouldn’t be discounted on that front.

“My Clone Sleeps Alone” appeared on In the Heat of the Night, Pat Benatar’s 1979 debut album. It’s a fascinating artifact of the efforts to position the singer as a rockier American counterpart to Kate Bush before she and her band settled into a killer pop-rock groove. (Benatar, along with Dire Straits and AC/DC and, um, Prince, were saddled with the short-lived “new music” tag, which also encompassed more commercial new wave sounds and pretty much any other remotely “off-beat” act which marketers believed could supplant the toppling disco/arena rock hegemonies.) I could just as easily imagine Toyah or Lene Lovich or Hazel O’Connor performing it….which was the point, I suppose.

Both the Cooper and Benatar tracks hearken back to the roots of the sci-fi cloning trope as depicted in Huxley’s Brave New World, where social harmony is established through cold scientific “logic.” It’s not about the genesis of the drone beings — though it never hurts to capitalize on pre-existing buzz — but the faceless, emotionless absence of individual identity. It shares less with marketplace metaphors of Parts: The Clonus Horror than it does with the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That film’s depiction of sleepwalking conformity was more effective because it was presented as an active contagion, in contrast to the hypothetical dystopias predicted by clone-fear narratives.

“In a hundred years, there will be vat grown people devoid of emotion” lacks the immediate kick of “if you nod off for a moment, you’ll become a soulless automaton” — especially when the 1980 election was looming on the horizon.

I may not be feeling this spooky season as strongly this year, but it’s not for a lack of trying. As part of my not-quite-successful attempts to kickstart the chills and thrills, I recently purchased a pair of a seasonally appropriate soundtrack releases on glorious, overpriced vinyl.

Both should be familiar to anyone who has been followed previous Halloween Countdowns, though they’ve been gradually relegated to the backbenches because of cyclical changes in my listening habits and an unwillingness to dip too many times from the same well.

The first of the pair is a recent release which falls into the “what took them so damn long” file — instrumental/choral score to Candyman by Philip Glass. Previously relegated to the ethically shady realm of fileshare networks, it can now be savored with a clear conscience.

The film was a welcome (if overlooked) anomaly in 1992. Its late-cycle slasher trash marketing campaign concealed a very effective adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden” which shifted the urban folk horror from the council estates of Thatcherite Britain to the Chicago housing projects of Bush the Elder’s America. It also leaned more heavily into the mythic implications of the story than the source material did, making it a more satisfying experience in many ways.

Warren Zevon once described “Werewolves of London” as a “dumb song for smart people,” and that also applies to Candyman. There’s no shortage of guts and gore and dumb decisions going on in it, but also a sense of striving for something higher than the genre boilerplate it could’ve settled for…and Glass’s score exemplifies that vibe.

What Candyman tried to do for 80s template slasher flicks, Silent Hill attempted to do for “survival horror” videogames. Eschewing the Romero-template zombies and prerendered (i.e. “flat”) backgrounds which Resident Evil established as standards for the genre, Konami went fully polygonal and extremely Lynchean with its interactive tale of diabolism and dreadful secrets in a small tourist town.

To do so, they reworked the Playstation’s hardware limitations into integral parts of the experience. Dismal draw distances were masked by omnipresent fog and darkness which gave amped up the psychological dread and provided greater heft to audio cues and ambiance. Monsters and other life-threatening abominations still abound, but the real terror comes from the overall sense of disorientation in a world which abruptly shifts from creepy to the stuff of raw nightmare.

The soundtrack naturally plays a large role in that, alternating between hauntingly melodic string arrangements and full-on sonic assaults of industrial ambiance. It was compelling enough to convince to to spring for an extortionately priced import soundtrach CD two decades ago, and remained compelling enough for me to pick up a slightly less expensive double-LP domestic reissue it last week.

While both soundtracks met my “essential records” criteria, neither have done much to boost my Halloween spirit so far. Maura has been digging their return to household rotation, though, which is great.


“Sigh, fine, we’ll also sacrifice a goat in the firepit tonight, buy only if you finish your homework first.”


Recommended listening:

Creature Double Feature is one of the lowest hanging fruits on the Gen X Bostonian nostalgia tree, familiar to any child of the Seventies who lived within WLVI’s broadcast range and had access to a TV set on Saturday afternoons.

Bring it up in a gathering of local forty-somethings and you’ll get a chorus of “Oh, man! I loved that!” followed by hazy recollections of cinematic scenes where the title escapes the teller but the echoes of childhood terror remain. Its roots run deep enough to ensure that at least one geekwear vendor at any given funnybook convention in the region has a t-shirt for sale with the Creature Double Feature logo, and the heir of a local auto dealership empire sprang for a one-off revival of the show a decade or so back. (Alas, any goodwill this generated was utterly squandered when said scion hopped on board the Trump turnip truck.)

As large as Creature Double Feature looms in my provincial-generational memory, I hardly ever watched the program when it aired. Barring inclement weather or illness or other reason to remain housebound, Saturday afternoons were too precious to be spent parked in front of a TV for four hours. It didn’t help that much of the featured fare was duller than dishwater for a restless preteen — chopped and dubbed kaiju flicks, cheaply made Euro-thrillers, and sensationally titled B&W domestic jobbers whose sensationalist titles attempted to compensate for the amount of screen time in which a bunch of doughy white dudes smoked and chatted endlessly in office sets.

To get my attention, the opening part of the bill either had to be especially unusual or earned my mom’s seal of approval. My mother was not a huge fan of horror movies, but she did have a small roster of beloved favorites from her own childhood. All had to do with huge-ass abominations of nature. There was The Deadly Mantis, Earth vs. The Spider, and It Came from Beneath the Sea, accompanied by the two-part magnum man-monster opus The Amazing Colossal Man/War of the Colossal Beast.

My mom’s excitement was enough to convince me to stick it through the broadcasts’ sluggish parts until the small snatches of nightmare fuel broke through, leading to many moments of dread where I suspected there was a giant arachnid lurking under my bed and a massive octopus hidden in the shallow stream across from my home.

A more abstract form of terror came from the Colossal Man flicks. They (along with Earth vs. The Spider, Beginning of the End, and Village of the Giants) were the brainchild of director Bert I. Gordon — “Mr. B.I.G.” — who made a surprisingly lengthy film career out of variably convincing process shots and props deployed to suggest HUGENESS AMOK.

The titular Colossal Man was Colonel Glenn Manning, a Korean War hero who attempts to rescue a civilian during a Nevada nuclear test but gets zapped with by the blast instead. The plutonium radiation lays the poor officer’s scalp bare and transforms him into a sixty-foot tall monster with a dubious grip on his sanity. (If this sounds incredibly familiar, let’s just say that Lee and Kirby weren’t above stripping the hulk of the popcult zeitgeist for usable parts.)

Despite the best efforts of his fiance and some military scientists, Manning loses his grip and goes on a leisurely stroll through Las Vegas, ending with a bazooka-assisted dive off the Hoover Dam…

…only to return alive, missing a chunk of his face, and played by a different actor in the sequel. Manning’s previously unmentioned sister links the disappearance of some food delivery trucks in Mexico with her supposedly deceased big brother, and ropes in the military to help locate him. They do, and haul him back to States after dosing him with a truck full of lude-laced bread. From there, things follow a diminishing returns retread of the final reel of the first flick, with a schoolbus of screaming kids standing in for the Strip and some high-tension wires for the big finish.

As far as movie monsters go, the Colossal Man trends toward the silly end of the spectrum. He’s not some phobia-inducing bit of wildlife dialed up to city-wrecking proportions, but a bald sad sack who resembles nothing so much as a giant toddler — right down to his loincloth “diaper” and halting body movements meant to convey his hugeness. for all that goofiness, though, he’s the Bert I. creature who spooks me the most.

Manning’s descent from self-pity into insanity is played to the scenery chewing hilt by Glenn Langan, who manages to put more menace into a pained chuckle than a dozen giant spiders combined could muster. That may be less about the quality of the performance than my own childhood experiences with a father who teetered between man and monster depending on his alcohol intake, which made me acutely sensitive to the moment he passed a threshold where bad shit was going to happen. (And when you’re six years old, five-foot-eleven might as well be sixty feet tell.)

Even on a less personal level, the movies have a few legitimate chills and thrills to offer. The giant syringe which the scientists use in the first movie is ridiculously literal right down to the basketball sized finger holes, but it doesn’t make the moment when Manning turns it into a lethal lawn dart any less grisly. And while the sequel mostly coasts on creative fumes, Manning’s mutilated face makeup occupied a prominent place in my childhood nightmare registry.

They may not be great movies, but they were certainly worth missing an afternoon playing in the sandpits to see.

Recommended listening:

I’ve recently been scanning eBay’s listings for reasonably priced copies of old Sears Wish Books. While there’s a excellent online depository of these holiday catalogs, it has a few unfortunate gaps which happen to align with areas of particular interest for me.

Besides, when it comes to this type of artifact, there’s no substitute for the weighty physicality of the genuine article…providing it wasn’t stored next to a quarter ton of used cat litter in a damp basement for three decades.

So far, I’ve managed to score copies of the 1980 and 1981 editions. Both were at the top of my want list because they spanned a very significant moment in kid-oriented consumer product — the post-Star Wars first flower of the Golden Age of Action figures, the Atari 2600′s shift from an expensive novelty to a must-have fixture for the rumpus room, and Dungeons & Dragons’ brief fad-driven surge into the mainstream.

I’ll probably take a deeper dive into this once the countdown ends, but I will say that I’ve been a little surprised by the shallowness of the inventory offered in these catalogs pages. When I was younger, their toy sections were the be-all, end-all of unbridled childhood greed, but the actual listings only represent a fraction of what was available on the aisles at the time. Entire lines are omitted or pared down to a single representative item, and broader trends compressed into an extremely narrow set of listings.

I’m sure a lot of it came down to supply chain politics, with Sears opting to prioritize favored vendors and in-house products for anything below the “a-list.” So Lego didn’t make the cut in either 1980 or 1981, but the Sears-branded “Brix Blox” got ample space to showcase its shameless knock-off product.

Likewise, the 1981 edition’s action figure section was limited to double-page spread of Star Wars toys followed by another page divided up between the Lone Ranger movie line, Clash of the Titans, and this hapless attempt to straddle two popcult epochs.

Today, Remco’s line of classic monster figures has gained an after-the-fact cult fandom, but the only examples I remember spotting in the wild at the time were a legless Frankenstein and armless Dracula buried at the bottom of some childhood peer’s toychest, biding their time until a hot date with an M-80 or half a can of lighter fluid.

It wasn’t until my college years that I saw the toys in their full off-model glory. For some reason I still haven’t been able to work out, Maura owned most (if not all) of the figures along with the carry case playset. It was just one of several early indicators that the lady was a keeper.

Recommended listening:

My GRAVE-est apologies for GHOST-ing on yesterday’s post, but I was being tormented by a lost set of car keys and supposedly-but-not-actually faxed important paperwork and other real life terrors more fiendish than any salivating hellbeast.

In any case, here’s a cursed artifact from a 1984 Billboard insert covering the rental-driven horror flick boom…

While several purveyors of terror on tape took advantage of the insert’s opportunity for some strategic ad buys, only United Home Video rose above the “spooky pun plus cover” mosaic format by lobbing in its own approximation of a horror host. As far as I’ve been able to tell, the mysterious “Lady Cadaver” only existed for the sake of this specific ad. I suppose you need all the cleavage you can reveal when your top tier offerings are Kingdom of the Spiders, The Toolbox Murders, and the “first made-for-home video movie.” (If only it had been the last as well.)

Honestly, nothing in United’s stated roster chills my spine as effectively as its oh-so-cheapjack-Eighties opening intro does.

Recommended listening:

Some vintage Bay State goth, seen live by a young Queen of Animals who was scared the frontman was going to steal her eyeglasses during his onstage antics.

Me (internally): “Things have been too hectic to update the site more than once or twice a week. Should I even bother attempting the Halloween Countdown this year?”

The Kid (via text): “hey pop check out the new doll me and mom got”

(By the way, the person who crafted the doll must have filled it with some kind of thermic gel which makes its body cold to the touch, even on a 90 degree day. Or I hope that’s the correct explanation, at least.)

I can run, but I can’t hide from my macabre calling.

Recommended listening:

This past weekend, I found myself acquiring the core rulebooks for not one but two new-to-me fantasy roleplaying games.

One was Zweihänder, a game of “grim and perilous adventure” from, well, Grim & Perilous Studios. If that phrase sounds a bit familiar, it’s because the game only nominally qualifies for the “new-to-me” tag. Though the text and hype take pains to specifically state as much, Zweihänder attempts to be — in spirit and mechanics and typography — the true successor to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay throne. So much so, in fact, that I’m a little surprised they weren’t hit with a C&D from Games Workshop over the cursory job its designers did in filing off the serial numbers.

The massive 600-page-plus tome leaves out matters of setting and canon, but both are easily discernible through all the rules and fluff talk about “the colors of magic” and “corruption” and “slayers” and “war dervishes” and the domains of unnamed yet very familiar gods. Mechanics-wise, Zweihänder attempts to split the difference between (and build upon) the first and second editions of WFRP. It mostly succeeds, and feels truer to the source material than the current official WFRP ruleset (which isn’t a bad game, but suffers from the oversimplifcation and overcomplication of mechanics which were fine as is.)

The Warhammer Fantasy license was my least favorite part of WFRP. The game’s grubby and lethal approach to heroic fantasy was the real draw, along with its flexible approach to character development. The campaign stuff was interesting fluff to be read on the shitter or mined for adventure ideas. As GW shifted its focus from selling games to selling canon, the fluff moved to the foreground and insinuated itself into the system’s mechanics. It wasn’t impossible to untangle these into something a little more ecumenical, but it did take a fair bit of work brainstorming canon-neutral replacements for the excised bits.

Zweihänder has that taken care of right out of the gate, which is something I’d been wanting since the first edition of WFRP dropped. If only it had been released back when I still had the time and players to run the damn thing. And while I appreciate the value for money the massive core rulebook presents, I’m too scared to read it while lazing on the sofa because I might collapse my ribcage.

Where Zweihänder is massive, grimdark, and detail-oriented, the Melsonian Arts Council’s Troika! is a compact, breezy, and flexible slice of RPG goodness. Its campaign setting is also implied rather than codified — but what it’s attempting to imply is left almost entirely to the reader. There are plenty of breadcrumbs in the text to extrapolate from, however — an arbitrarily consistent science-fantasy universe populated by pissed-off owls, golem-like dwarfs, and muck-encrusted clergy whose parishes are stagnant ponds.

It’s heroic fantasy in the “dreamworlds” style, the type of phantasmagorical weirdness which dominated the scene before Tolkien’s long shadow codified the genre’s conventions (by both slavish adherence or surly rejection). Everything is mythic and and odd and — because we live in a post-Pratchett, post-Adams world — dripping with a wry sense of whimsy.

Honestly, I tend to find that style to be more than a little cloying, which is why my grand plan to read through the crate of Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks my grandpa left me came to naught. Too much of it reads like prose Coleridge fanfic crapped out by dilettante antiquarians with too high an opinion of their literati cred. I don’t need “Jabberwocky” extruded into a full-length novel, either with or without white-boy forays into cringe-worthy “Orientalism.”

Troika is fine, though, mainly because it knows when to ease off the throttle. The silly bits don’t overshadow the tantalizing sense of wonder the game seeks to cultivate, and nothing in the core rulebook goes on long enough to overstay its welcome. Troika takes pride in its very simple, d6-based mechanics and expresses confidence that any rule-or-lore gaps can be handled by the players.

If ever a game could be described as “adorable” or “darling” or other terms employed by great aunts, it would be Troika. I’m not sure if it’s a game I’d ever run, yet…

With Zweihander filling my head with thoughts of WFRP again, I got to thinking about that game’s apocalypticism. The end times are upon the Old World, which is being devoured from within and without by the gods of primordial chaos. Their victory is inevitable, at which point the universe will collapse into roiling formlessness.

Which is pretty boring, if you think about it. Not just for the players, but for the chaos gods themselves. Where’s the fun in manipulating a soup of etheroplasmic goo? What if, after a few millennia of being bored shitless, they decide to reform the cosmos — not in an entirely orderly fashion, but with enough structure to provide something to kick back against and keep things interesting?

In my estimation, that fractured multiverse would be the one in which Troika is set. As adolescent edgelord nihilism (hopefully) gives way to a reconciliation with a fairly absurd world, so, too, does “grim and perilous adventure” give way to “not sure I completely understand it but it seems like a hoot.”

Why else would one of Troika’s character careers be a cashieried chaos warrior given leave by their gods to try something other than global annihilation for a change?

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